WATER SHORTAGES IN CHINA

WATER SHORTAGES IN CHINA

20080317-8ChinaGRNPCwater shortages.jpgChina has serious water shortage problems caused by over-use and pollution and lots of people living in places that don't have much water. It is estimated that every year China has a water supply shortfall of 40 billion cubic meters. In other words each year China uses 40 billion cubic meters of water “five to seven times the amount used in Southern California” more than its resources can sustain. Water shortages are most severe in northern China.

The UN considers China one of the 13 countries most affected by water scarcity. China supports 20 percent of the world population with only 7 percent of is water. On top of that the North China Plain is home to about 42 percent of China’s population but only has 8 percent of the country’s water resources. If the region where a country its water availability would rank below Morocco. China has about the same amount of water as Canada put around 40 more times people. The shortages are particularly acute in northern China where half the population lives with only 15 percent of China’s water. The water available for each person in China is one forth the global average and this portion is expected to shrink to one fifth as the population grows.

North China is chronically short of water and subject to frequent droughts. A considerable proportion of its irrigation water comes from wells. Officials in the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power (and its predecessors) have periodically proposed diverting water from the Yangtze to irrigate the North China Plain. Scientist predict that by the year 2010 China could fall one billion cubic meters short of meeting it demands for industrial and daily water use. During times of drought, water shortages could reach catastrophic proportions. By 2030, the shortfall could rise to three billion cubic meters.

Water shortages cost China an estimated $39 billion a year in lost crops, lower industrial production and stalled economic output. Water shortages have caused factories to close down temporarily, salt water to seep into wells low from a falling water tables and the water supplies to get dirtier. Disputes over water, namely by people down stream complaining that people upstream are taking all the water, have broken out.

Some see water shortages as China’s No. 1 long-term problem, and say if the problem isn’t solved in northern China they whole country could go down the drain. The World Bank warns of “catastrophic consequences for future generations” caused by water shortages. In some places the water shortages are so severe that once fertile farmland and grazing areas have been turned into dust bowls, drinking water is brought by the army in trucks, crops are watered by hand and farmers lay out plastic sheets to collect every last drop of water when there is rain. By some estimates 400,000 people a year are driven from the homes because of water shortages.

Li Xiaoqiang of the Yellow River Conservancy Commission told AFP, “Everyone wants more water, the dams want water for electricity, the industries want water to increase production, the farmers want more water for irrigation and cities need water for daily living., . We estimate that some provinces and regions will see rather large shortages during peak water use periods.”

Websites and Resources

Good Websites and Sources: PBS Audio Visual on China’s Water Problems pbs.org ; Earth Policy Report on Water Scarcity and Food earth-policy.org 2009 Business Week Article businessweek.com ; Worldwatch article on water and grain prices worldwatch.org ; Wikipedia article on China’s Water Crisis Wikipedia ; Books: China’s Water Crisis by Ma Jun. The River Runs Black by Elizabeth C. Economy (Cornell, 2004) is one of the best recently-written books on China’s environmental problems. In his book China on the Edge: the Crisis of Ecology and Development in China, the Chinese intellectual He Bochun argues that in many ways China's environmental problems have already reached catastrophic levels.

South North Water Project Water Technology. Net water-technology.net ; Study of the South North Water Project from the mid 2000s hdr.undp.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Delays in the Project bbc.co.uk ; Why the Delays “ probeinternational.org Yellow River Wikipedia Wikipedia University of Massachusetts U Mass ; Yellow River Conservancy Commission Yellow River Conservancy Commission ; Map on China Highlights China Highlights

On the Environment: China Environmental News Blog china-environmental-news.blogspot.com ; China.Org (Chinese Government Environmental News china.org.cn/english/environment ; New York Times Multimedia Series on Pollution in China nytimes.com ; China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) english.mep.gov.cn ; EIN News Service’s China Environment News einnews.com/china/newsfeed-china-environment Wikipedia article on Environment of China ; Wikipedia ; China Environmental Protection Foundation (a Chinese Government Organization) cepf.org.cn/cepf_english ;Global Environmental Institute (a Chinese non-profit NGO) geichina.org ; Beijing Energy Network (a Chinese grassroots environmental group) greenleapforward.com ; Greenpeace China greenpeace.org/china/en ; China Digital Times Collection of Articles chinadigitaltimes.net ; Brief History of Chinese Environment planetark.com ; Article on Wetlands Degradation library.utoronto.ca ; Useful But Dated Source List on te Environment and China newton.uor.edu ; China Environmental Forum at the Wilson Center wilsoncenter.org ; International Fund for China’s Environment ifce.org ; China Watch worldwatch.org ; China Environmental law Blog chinaenvironmentallaw.com ; World Resources Institute wri.org ; China Environmental Industry Network cein.net

Expert: Ma Jun director of Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs and author of China’s Water Crisis

Links in this Website: ENVIRONMENT IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; GLOBAL WARMING IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; AIR POLLUTION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; WATER POLLUTION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; WATER SHORTAGES IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; DEFORESTATION AND DESERTIFICATION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; GARBAGE AND RECYCLING IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ;ENVIRONMENT, GOVERNMENT POLICY AND FIGHTING POLLUTION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; Factsanddetails.com/China ; ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS AND PROTESTS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; THE 2008 OLYMPICS IN BEIJING, POLLUTION WEATHER Factsanddetails.com/China ; LAND AND GEOGRAPHY OF CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; WEATHER IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; DAMS AND HYDRO POWER IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; THREE GORGES AND THREE GORGES DAM Factsanddetails.com/China ; COAL IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; NUCLEAR POWER AND ALTERNATIVE ENERGIES Factsanddetails.com/China ; WATER IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China

Water Shortages in Urban Areas in China

20080317-water shortage Xinhua3.jpg The shortage of water is a big problem in many cities. Water is sometimes turned on only a couple of times a day for about a half hour each time. People with money have special storage tanks to collect water during those times, which in turn allows them to have water around the clock. People without storage tanks collect water in jugs and buckets and often have to take bucket baths when the water is not turned on.

The accumulated overuse of water in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei areas of northern China is estimated at 9 billion cubic meters. Water tables are falling and lakes evaporating. An blunt editorial The South China Morning Post said that China, had mismanaged its vast system of 87,000 reservoirs, 43 percent of which it said were in poor condition.

According to a 2004 study 400 of 669 Chinese cities experiences water shortages, with 100 of them described as “serious”, and 20 million hectares of farmland are affected by drought, cutting grain production by 28 million tons. Most of the cities are in northern or western China. Many are in the Yellow River basin.

The municipal water demand rose from 7 billion cubic meters in 1980 to was 29 billion cubic meters in 2000. The demand of water from industry rose from 46 billion cubic meters in 1980 to 177 cubic meters in 2000. According to one estimate water shortages result in an annual lost of industrial output of $28 billion. Pollution in lakes and aquifers and urban development projects with fountains and lawns aggravate the water shortage situation.

In the future northern China will not have enough water to meet its projected minimum needs, and choices will have to be made on who shall get water: farmers, factories or urban dwellers.

Water Shortages in Beijing

Beijing suffers from water shortages. It sits on a plain without large rivers and receives little rain fall. The water supplied by reservoirs isn't enough to meet demand and much of that is diverted to irrigate farmland and provide water for factories. As one drives outside of Beijing one crosses a number of bridges of rivers that are blue lines on a map but are empty river beds except after a heavy rain.

Water extracted from groundwater supplies has caused the water to table to fall from 16 feet below sea level in 1950 to 164 feet below sea level in 1993. The water that is available is often polluted. Drinking water has traditionally been taken from two reservoirs, but since 1997 it has been taken from one because the water from the other is too polluted to use for drinking.

The average annual per capita water availability in Beijing is 400 cubic meters, one seventh the national average and one twenty-eighth the world average. If nothing is done, Beijing's annual water deficit could exceed 250 billion gallons a year by the year 2010, a figure equal to half its current annual consumption. This would lead to perpetual drought, shortages, and rationing and greatly slow China's economic growth.

A Chinese engineer told the New York Times that Beijing’s "reserve storage water will be used up in the next few years without effective water saving measures." After that "it will become a crisis" and the capital's economic development would come to a "standstill."

To tackle the problem the Beijing government has proposed doubling water rates and spending billions to increase the water supply. Some have called for rationing. One of the main short term goals is to make sure there is enough of water for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. For the long term China has launched programs like the South-North Water Transfer Project (See Below) to bring water to Beijing and other northern cities.

Water Shortages in Rural Areas in China

20080317-water shortage Xinhua4jpg.jpg More than 80 million people in rural China have to walk more than a mile for drinking water." Water shortages raise also irrigation costs. Aquifers have been so depleted that in some farming regions, wells probe a half-mile down before striking water.

Water shortages are affecting agricultural areas. Shandong, a major wheat producing area, is drying out. Water shortages there have reduced grain harvests by 3.3 million tons (enough to feed 9 million people).

Water tables are falling almost everywhere. Repeated drilling and well building has caused the water table to drop in some places by as much as four feet a year and outpaced the amount of water replenished by rain. The North China Plain, which produces half of China’s wheat and corn, is among the places that suffer from this problem. In some places the pumping of ground water has caused the ground to sink and collapse. Progressive overuse of water in the North China Plain has created a huge area the size Hungary where the ground has subsided.

Farmers that used to dig wells with shovels. In Beijing and Hebei Province some wells have to be dug a half mile deep until they reach water. Some aquifers are polluted. Groundwater usage has doubled since 1970, two thirds of the China’s total water consumption comes from aquifers.

In somes places wells have completely dried up and farmers can only grow the most drought-resistant crops. In yet other places, fights have broken out between villages over makeshift dams set up to divert water to fields. Sometimes the disputes have grown into riots that have left people dead and injured. Water supplies are very short in Shanxi Province in northern China. There a typical family uses five buckets of water a day compared to 28 per person in Japan. To save water families use waste water from laundry to flush their toilets and water left over from washing vegetables to water plants.

Residents in parts of Ningxia have had to abandon their villages when their wells ran dry. More than 400,000 environmental refugees live in a valley called Hongispu, where water is brought in with a Kuwaiti-funded aqueduct from the Yellow River 20 miles way. They live in single-room brick houses and farm plots of land given to them by the government.

Factories in the northwest have already had to shut down because there simply wasn’t enough water for them to operate.

See Drought, Land and Weather, Nature and Science.

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Water use map

Causes of Water Shortages in China

Water shortages are blamed on increasing demands of new industries, an expanding population, agriculture, pollution, reckless development, and poor planning, especially in northern areas where there isn’t much water. Affluence and the increasing use of toilets, showers and washing machines and increased consumption meat and alcohol (which need more grain and thus more water) has increased demand for scare water supplies.

About 85 percent of all water in China is used for irrigation. But industrial and urban water use is growing. Much of it is inefficient. China requires 23 tons of water to produce one ton of steel, compared to six tons of water in the United States, Japan and Germany. There are gross inefficiencies in the paper industry as well.

China’s booming economy has produced bigger and more factories and power plants that require huge amounts of water for processing and cooling. As people become more affluent they are taking more showers, using more water for drinking, sewage and clean, Better food requires more water as do golf courses and ski resorts with man-made snow. The percentage of water used in the municipal and industrial sectors in northern China has increased from 21 percent in 1997 to 29 percent in 2010 and is expected to reach 35 percent in 2030.

The distribution of water and agriculture lie at the heart of the problem. Southern China contains 82 percent of China's water and 38 percent of its agricultural land. By contrast northern China contains 18 percent of China's water and 62 percent of its agricultural land. In some places where water supplies were sufficient too many people moved in and depleted the water supplies.

Reckless exploitation is also a serious problem. More than two million pipe wells have been sunk in northern China to exploit the once plentiful supplies of ground water. This is one of the main reasons why the water table has fallen to such low levels there. One villager in Ningxia told the Times of London, “It doesn’t rain here any more. Plus in recent years, people drilled too may wells and that means the level of the water under the ground has dropped."

Leaking sewers and toilets is another cause. "If a country can send satellites and missiles into space," a Chinese politician once said, "it should be able to dry up its toilets." The statement launched a nationwide campaign against the makers of shoddy toilets.

The main cause of China’s water shortages arguably is pricing. Water in China is much cheaper than its real cost. There are places in northern China and Inner Mongolia that are deserts but people there consume more water per capita than many Europeans. Up until 1985 water was free. This was is line worth socialist principals but didn’t do much to discourage waste and encourage farmers, factories and homeowners to be efficient. According to the Chinese government China uses four time more water per unit of economic output that the global average. The rate of industrial reusage is only 55 percent, compared to 80 percent in most developed countries. In recent years the Chinese government has allowed prices to rise, but only gradually, fearing social backlash.

Water is still cheap by international standard. Industry uses 4 to 10 time more water per units of production than the average in industrialized nations.

Many say the root of the problem is not so much shortages of water but overpopulation in places that are not really fit for human habitation. Water shortages are often local problems rather than national ones. Shortages are worse in places where there is little water or rain and lots of people. Global warming could make water shortages worse in some places and create water shortages in other places.

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Yangtze water levels drop

Chinese Rivers, Wetlands and Lakes Dry Up

Rivers and lakes are disappearing. China has lost more than 1,000 lakes, or 13 percent of its lakes, in the past 50 years. Poyan, a lake in Jiangxi, is shrinking. In northern China rivers are drying up. The important Huai River ran dry for 90 days in 1997. The Fen River rarely has water in it anymore.

Qinghai Lake, Places

More than half of China’s coastal wetlands have disappeared. China has 65.9 million hectares of wetlands, 10 percent fo the world’s total. Less than half is given any kind of protection.

Twelve mains sections of the wetlands long the Haihe River, which to cover 3,800 square kilometers, have shrunk 80 percent in the past 50 years. The problem is blamed on excessive exploitation of the river and the damming of the river’s tributaries.

The Baiyangdian marshland (70 miles south of Beijing) is drying up. It is the home of northern China's largest freshwater lake and a setting for folk tales and poems. In the summer of 2001, after five years of drought, water levels in the largest lake dropped two meters. Since the 1950s the lakes of Baiyangdian have shrunk from 500 square kilometers to 300 square kilometers, according to officials, and just 70 square kilometers, according to some local people.

The government has already begun to take measures to reclaim some wetlands that have been developed. Some of the dikes around Dongting Lake have been taken down to allow lake water to reclaim wetlands, formally occupied by farms, providing a habitat for migrating birds. Plans call for the relocation of around 2.5 million people, with each household getting $2,500 in compensation and land for a new home. Farmers who had lived through several floods are keen to move some place where they don’t have to worry about floods anymore. Some farmers who have already moved have been given help to breed pigs and set up fish farms so they can earn more than before they were relocated.

28,000 Rivers Have Disappeared in China

Emily Ford wrote in The Times, “About 28,000 rivers have disappeared from China's state maps, an absence seized upon by environmentalists as evidence of the irreversible natural cost of developmental excesses. More than half of the rivers previously thought to exist in China appear to be missing, according to the 800,000 surveyors who compiled the first national water census, leaving Beijing fumbling to explain the cause. Only 22,909 rivers covering an area of 100sq kilometers were located by surveyors, compared with the more than 50,000 in the 1990s, a three-year study by the Ministry of Water Resources and the National Bureau of Statistics found. [Source: Emily Ford, The Times, March 30, 2013 ***]

Angel Hsu and William Miao, The Atlantic As recently as 20 years ago, there were an estimated 50,000 rivers in China, each covering a flow area of at least 60 square miles. But now, according to China's First National Census of Water, more than 28,000 of these rivers are missing. To put this number into context, China's lost rivers are almost equivalent, in terms of basin area, to the United States losing the entire Mississippi River. [Source: Angel Hsu and William Miao, The Atlantic, April 29 2013 /=/]

“The census also charted a decline in water quality. The report came as new Premier Li Keqiang pledged greater transparency on pollution, which Communist Party rulers fear is a potential catalyst for social unrest. "We must take the steps in advance, rather than hurry to handle these issues when they have caused a disturbance in society," Mr Li said, according to state media. The missing rivers provoked wistful recollections among Chinese internet users. "The rivers I used to play around have disappeared; the only ones left are polluted, we can't eat the fish in them, they are all bitter," a person using the name Pippi Shuanger wrote on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. ***

Causes of the Disappearance of 28,000 Rivers in China

Emily Ford wrote in The Times, “Officials blame the apparent loss on climate change, arguing that it has caused waterways to vanish, and on mistakes by earlier cartographers. But environmental experts say the disappearance of the rivers is a real and direct manifestation of headlong, ill-conceived development, where projects are often imposed without public consultation. [Source: Emily Ford, The Times, March 30, 2013 ***]

Ma Jun, a water expert at the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said the missing rivers were a cause for "great attention" and underscored the urgent need for a more sustainable mode of development. "One of the major reasons is the over-exploitation of the underground water reserves, while environmental destruction is another reason, because desertification of forests has caused a rain shortage in the mountain areas," Mr Ma said. Large hydroelectric projects such as the Three Gorges Dam, which diverted trillions of litres of water to drier regions, were likely to have played a role, he said. ***

Angel Hsu and William Miao wrote in The Atlantic” “Official explanations from the Chinese government have attributed the significant reduction to statistical discrepancies, water and soil loss, and climate change. "The disparity in numbers was caused mainly by inaccurate estimates in the past, as well as climate change and water and soil loss. Due to limited technology in the past, the previous figures were estimated using incomplete topographic maps dating back to the 1950s," said Huang He, China's Deputy Director of the Ministry of Water Resources, in an interview with the South China Morning Post. [Source: Angel Hsu and William Miao, The Atlantic, April 29 2013 /=/]

“Pinning the rivers' disappearance on climate change is politically palatable right now, and the human origin of global warming is not controversial in China. But in an unusual twist, blaming climate change allows officials to absolve themselves of the poor management, governance, lack of groundwater extraction controls, and rapid development that are more likely culprits for the river's disappearances. /=/

Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute and a leading water expert, told The Atlantic: "As China's population and economy have rapidly grown, the country has experienced serious degradation of its water resources, including massive overuse and contamination. The 'disappearance' of major rivers and streams is far more likely to be directly connected to uncontrolled and unsustainable extraction of water for industry and agriculture, though climate change may play a greater role in the future." /=/

“The past 30 years in which these rivers vanished have coincided with a phase of rapid industrialization and urban growth in China. From 1990 to 2000, urban areas expanded by more than 5,000 square miles, an area the size of Puerto Rico, and the expanding economy has correspondingly strained water and energy resources. Poor management of water resources has also exacerbated the situation. The main water resource law in China only requires permits for groundwater extractions for "large-scale" projects. The lack of specificity in this language has led to what Gleick says is substantial overdraft of groundwater throughout the country. Weak water governance also caused last September's red water flow in to the Yangtze River, an occurrence that left even Chinese officials perplexed. /=/

“What about the statistical discrepancies that the government says could have factored in to the rivers' disappearance? While some updates to river classification are plausible, cartography and mapping techniques have been very sophisticated in China for many years. One user on Sina Weibo tweeted an old map of waterways for Qingdao, showing abundant waterways in considerable detail. The maps are accurate and Qingdao's rivers have not been wiped away by "improved surveying methods" -- they have simply been converted into Qingdao's sprawling roadways, said one of the city's urban historians.” /=/

Water Conflicts in China

Access to water supplies has produce conflicts between downstream communities and up stream ones, farmers and factories and environmentalist and economic planners and even different cites.

Many farmers have had their water supplies diverted for industrial use. One farmer who used to grow 35 bushels of wheat a year told the Washington Post that he stopped raising wheat when water was directed from a local river to a petrochemical plant. He said he now has trouble supplying enough drinking water to his family and has to use a well dug over 100 meters and shares it with other families to get the water.

In Beijing, because the water levels in the Minyun reservoir are too low and the water in the Guanting reservoir is too polluted to drink, water was has been diverted from a river than normally supplies water ro Tianjin, depriving that city of badly need water supplies. Even with that there isn’t enough water for Beijing. Beijing now gets three quarters of its water from underground aquifers, with drilling reaching to depths of 3000 meters, five times deeper than in the 1990s. Water shortages in Beijing were deemed so critical in the summer pf 2010 that the authorities announced the diversion of 200 million cubic meters of water from Hebei's farmfields to quench Beijing's thirst.

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Water resources map

Solutions to Water Problems in China

Reusing and recycling water is a solution. It is estimated that some cities can meet a fifth of their water needs by recycling water. Worldwide, two thirds of urban water doesn’t even get treated. Systems that treat and reuse wastewater are often the least costly and most efficient way to clean water but they have difficulty overcoming the aversion that many people have to drinking water derived from sewage.

Ultraviolet radiation is a popular means of disinfecting water but is less effective when the water contains sediments and sludge. In places where water is collected from dirty ponds and lakes, people have learned to clean the water by folding clean cloths several times, placing them over a jug, and pouring water through it. The cloth filters many kinds of disease-causing organisms.

Water evaporates quickly from open irrigation ditches. Better irrigation techniques---namely covering the ditches---could save a third of the water.

Water experts say that progress made in cleaning water and making it available at cheap prices only encourages the more people waster it. Beijing raised water prices in 2009 for commercial and industrial use by 11 percent to 50 percent and for residential use by 8 percent.

One of the goals of planners is to keep water cheap enough so that the poor can get what they need but have water prices high enough so that people don’t waste it. In many places water is subsidized, and the cheap prices encourage people to waste it. The obvious solution here is to end subsidies so that water isn’t wasted.

There are major disagreement between agriculturalists and environmentalists on how available water should be managed.

Yellow River Dries Up

The Yellow River has dried up more than 30 times since 1972, when it ran dry for the first time in recorded history. In 1994, it ran dry for 122 days along a 180-mile section in Shandong, not far from where it empties into the Yellow Sea. In 1996 it ran dry 136 days. In 1997, it ran dry for 226 days, denying water to 7.4 million acres of farmland. One year a dry riverbed stretched more than 372 miles. Only after 2000 did it reach the Bo Hai Gulf.

The Yellow River wasn't always like this. A resident of one town on the river told the Los Angeles Times, "Forty years ago, their was so much water that you could sit on the embankment, wait for fish to swim by, and go down and catch them." Now he said, "There are no fish because there's not enough water for them to grow."

The river runs dry because between 80 to 90 percent of its water is taken upstream for urban areas, industry and agriculture. The lack of water causes the river to run dry near where it enters the sea. Decline of water caused by global warming and the melting of Tibetan glaciers could make the situation worse.

To keep the river flowing efforts are being made to distribute water more equitably and use it more efficiently. A lot of water is wasted in agriculture, industry and urban areas. In August 2006, new laws were passed to better manage and reduce fights over the Yellow River. Beijing gave broad authority to the Water Resources Ministry to oversea management of the river in 11 provinces and municipalities and gave it a mandate to impose stiff fines and sanctions on officials that don’t comply with the rules or take more than their share of water.

Water Conservation in China

Water can be conserved by repairing leaky pipes, lining irrigation ditches to prevent leakage, covering irrigation ditches to prevent evaporation, using water-saving technology, and reducing water intensive crops like rice, cotton and sugar cane. On agricultural land, raised ridges up to 10 meters wide are alternated with shallow canals to channel water, either harvested rain or deviated river water. This not only helps to water crops but also stores heat and keeps the fields warm on cold nights. Farmers have also been encouraged to use sprinkler systems, a more efficient use of scarce water resources than flood-type irrigation systems.

Some old tried and true methods are being brought back such as harvesting, transporting and storing rain water. In some cases these technologies are being revived because modern technology has not supplied all the answers. Systems that use catchments, gutters and other channels, storage tanks and gravity or pump driven delivery systems, for example, are cheaper or at least equal in cost to drilling and building a well. Qanats are being revived (See Xinjiang).

China want to reduce water consumption by 30 percent between 2008 and 2010. In May 2009, the city of Beijing said it would raise water prices as parts of its effort to conserve water. In northern China per capita use is one eighth that of the United States so there are limits what can be achieved with conservation.

Irrigation was important in China's traditional agriculture, and some facilities existed as long as 2,000 years ago. The extension of water conservancy facilities by labor-intensive means was an important part of the agricultural development programs of the 1950s. During the Great Leap Forward, a number of water conservancy projects were undertaken, but with insufficient planning and capital. During the turmoil and bad weather of 1959-61, many water conservancy works were washed out by floods or otherwise destroyed, considerably reducing the irrigated acreage. Facilities were rebuilt in the early 1960s. By the 1980s irrigation facilities covered nearly half the cultivated land; systems installed since the late 1960s extended over a considerable part of north China, especially on the North China Plain. [Source: Library of Congress]

“In the era of post-Mao reform, irrigation and drainage systems expanded to increase the stock of stable and high-yielding land. The inventory of mechanical pumps also greatly increased; powered irrigation equipment reached almost 80 million horsepower in 1985. In this period the government began to charge fees for the water the farmers used, and farmers therefore limited the amount of water applied to their crops on a benefit cost basis. The reorganization of rural institutions weakened administrative measures necessary to make large- scale waterworks function. Lowered investment, poor maintenance, and outright damage to facilities lessened the effectiveness of the system. Adding additional acreage was likely to be increasingly costly because areas not under irrigation were remote from easily tapped water sources. In the mid-1980s government officials recognized the problems and undertook to correct them. [Ibid]

Privatizing Water in China

Many feel the solution to the world’s water problems is privatizing it. Siemens, GE and Dow are among the companies that have realized there is money to be made in water. Much of their focus has been on water treatment and gobbling up companies in this sector in preparation for long term strategies. Many are looking to the Middle East, which awash in oil money but is lacking in fresh water, and China which also suffers from water shortages and is becoming wealthy enough to pay for big projects.

But there is a lot of resistance from users and potential suppliers. In some circles there are even calls to make water a human right. Business also has its doubts. Companies say water requires a high initial investment but “the payback period is long, rate of return low and the risks are high.” Companies want assurances from partner governments and possibly the World Bank that will get a reasonable rate of return to justify long term commitments. One of their primary reservations is that will invest large amounts hard currency and be paid in worthless, local currency.

As it stands the private sector supplies water for only 5 percent of the world’s population. In the mid 1980s, the World Bank pressured governments in Asia and Latin America to privatize and deregulate water and utility services and open them up to the private sector. The results were disastrous. Companies demanded price increases to pay for modernization and expansion. Governments initially went along but public protests caused them to change their positions. Many projects were killed after the companies had already made sizable investments. Many of the projects and foreign companies got burned as government broke their promises with them.

In China, local water development companies include China Water Industry Group and Guangzhou Investment. Foreign ones included Veolia Environment and Suez. Unlike India which is mainly using public money to develop water, China is using private companies and is actively wooing foreign investment. See Private Companies Battle Water Pollution, Water Pollution

Efforts to Combat Water Shortages in China

Water saving technology starting to be used in China includes irrigation equipment invented in Israel that drips water to individual plants at times when the plant needs it the most so no water is wasted.

The government is raising prices to increase efficiency and attract investors who can increase the water supply. Water in China remains incredibly cheap by Western standards (only 11 cents a ton in Beijing). Studies have shown that more rice can be produced with less water if farmers are required to pay for water in a strictly regulated system.

The government has introduced markets for trading water “rights” to promote water conservation. As part of the system, farmers get water credits and can sell ones they don’t use. The system has been used successfully in Gansu Province and is expected to be introduced to other areas.

The new five year plan issued in 2006 calls for a reduction of industrial water consumption by one third. Efforts to get ordinary people to use water more efficiently including posting slogans on walls and billboards. Companies realizing there are profits to be made are advertising water-efficient washing machines.

The government has resorted to “precipitation-inducement technologies”--- cloud seeding with hundreds of planes, and thousands rockets and artillery shells---to bring rain to parched areas.

See SOUTH-NORTH WATER TRANSFER PROJECT, Dams, Energy and Water, Government and Public Services

Yellow River Dam

The massive $4.17 billion Yellow River Dam built near Xiaolangdi in central China is the nation's second largest dam project after the Three Gorges Dam. The main purpose of the earthen dam is to halt the rising river by flushing out the silt. This will be accomplished with 16 reinforced tunnels that cut through an adjacent mountain which allow engineers to regulate the flow of water. During the wet season water can be stored in the reservoir to prevent flooding, and during the dry season it can be released to flush out sediment as well as provide water for irrigation.

Work began on the Yellow River dam in 1994 with the building of huge roads for carrying out rocks and earth and the blasting of massive tunnels. The reservoir behind the dam will be able store water until the year 2020. At the time no more water can released to flush out the sediment down river and the river and levees will once again start rising. Our children and grandchildren will need to think of another solution to the silt problem, one engineer told Newsweek.

Yellow River Silt and Floods, See Places

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South North Water Project dam

The Yellow River dam will protect 120 million people from the river's notorious flooding; better allocate water so deprived farmlands get their share of irrigation water; and ensure the river doesn't dry up like it has in the past.

The dam will make 30 percent more water available for irrigation, which will reduce dependency on wells and ground water, and produce 1,800 kilowatts of electricity (valued at $170 million a year). This is only a tenth of the power produced by much swifter moving Yangtze River at the Three Gorges Dam.

Unlike the Three Gorges project, the Yellow River dam has received a favorable reception from bankers and environmentalists. Its estimated cost is only a forth of the Three Gorges Dam. The U.S Export-Import Bank and the World Bank pledge over $1 billion in loans.

About 170,000 people who live in the Yellow River basin will have to be resettled to higher ground. Most of the resettled population have no objections about the move. Many are leaving mud-walled homes and small plots of land for modern homes with conveniences and large parcels of land.

Other Chinese Dams

See Dams and Hydro Power, Energy and Water, Education, Health...

Image Sources: 1) Gary Braasch ; 2, 3) Xinhua; 4) Earth Policy; 5) ESWN, Environmental News; 6) Cyberego.eu; 7), 9) CnHubei 8) Water Technology; 10) China Hiking

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2014

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