Percentage of population with access to safe water: 83 percent. Between a quarter and a third of China’s population doesn’t have piped water. By one count 48 million people in China lack sufficient drinking water. The number of people facing severe drinking water shortages doubled to 5.9 million in early 2008 because of a severe winter drought.

20080317-water pumped from Tanzhao Metrpolitan News, env news.jpg
Pumped water

China has more than a fifth of the world’s population but only 7 percent of its fresh 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. It is estimated that China will need to increase its water supply fivefold to meet its industrial needs by 2035.

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.

There is an old Chinese saying that when noble guests visit the streets must be sprinkled with water. Water use per person (personal, agricultural and industrial): 116,000 gallons, compared to 484,500 gallons in the United States. About half of China’s water is used for irrigation. This figure may rise to 70 percent by the next century.

By various accounts 97 percent or rural people lack adequate sanitation and 360 million rural people lack access to safe drinking water. Many more villages have access to electricity than running water. Outhouses and fields are what people use in villages not flush toilets. Running hot water is often considered a luxury that only the Chinese elite can afford.

The amount of water available for each person in China is about one quarter of the world average and is declining. The problem is particularly acute in years when there are severe droughts. At least 300 cities are experiencing water shortages. The tap water in Beijing often has a funny smell and lots of particles in it.

China supports 20 percent of the world population with only 7 percent of is water. China has roughly the same amount of water as the United States but five time the population. The shortages are particularly acute in northern China where half the population lives with only 15 percent of China’s water.

Generally, southern China is relatively wet and northern China is largely dry. In southern China many people get their drinking water from ponds and lakes.

Expert: Ma Jun director of Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs and author of China’s Water Crisis . Reports: The U.N. World Water Development Report 2009 by UNESCO; and Asia’s Next Challenge: Securing the Region’s Water Future .

Good Websites and Sources: China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research iwhr.com/english ; Ministry of Water Resources chinawater.cn/english ; Links in this Website: DAMS AND HYDRO POWER IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; WATER POLLUTION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; WATER SHORTAGES IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; AGRICULTURE IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China

China Still Tests Bottled Drinking Water Using 'Soviet Standards'

Patrick Boehler wrote in the South China Morning Post: “China still follows regulations adopted from the Soviet Union to test bottled drinking water, the Beijing News reported. "When the World Health Organisation updated its detection methods, [we] updated the standard for tap water, but not for bottled water," an unnamed expert with the Institute for Environmental Health and Related Product Safety in Beijing told the paper.According to these arcane regulations, China's national health inspectors do not test bottled drinking water for acidity, or pH level, or for substances including mercury and silver. [Source: Patrick Boehler, South China Morning Post, May 2, 2013]

More than five times more indicators are used to test running water than bottled drinking water, the paper said. "Bottled drinking water regulation is lagging behind," Wang Xiuyan, an adviser on mineral water for the Beijing Mining Industry Association, told the paper. "We should follow international standards. The bottled water market in the country is booming amid a general anxiety over tainted food productions and environmental degradation. Sales of bottled water grew from US$1 billion in 2000 to US$9 billion in 2012, according to Euromonitor

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.

Water Conservation in China

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]

“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. Farmers have also been encouraged to use sprinkler systems, a more efficient use of scarce water resources than flood-type irrigation systems.

Drinking Water Standards in China

The China Daily reported: “Both urban and rural residents can expect to drink cleaner and healthier water with the introduction of new compulsory standards that take effect nationwide starting July 2012. The new standards are much stricter than the ones that have been in use since 1985, with the items tested increasing from 35 to 106. In fact, they almost match international standards, which means that tap water will be drinkable without being boiled if the standards are adhered to. [Source: China Daily, May 15, 2012]

The new and higher standards are necessary because of the pollution that is increasingly contaminating water sources. When drinking water was sourced directly from underground and from rivers or lakes that had no chemical and industrial plants nearby, even the old standards could guarantee water was safe to drink. But now even underground water has been contaminated in some places by industrial and agricultural pollutants. [Ibid]

“However, making standards is one thing, putting them into practice is another.That explains why the standards were actually made in 2007, but the central government allowed five years for governments at various levels to make preparations for their introduction. The minister of water resources promised that all rural residents will be provided with safe drinking water. But if the new standards are to be applied to the water for rural communities, greater efforts will be needed, as at least 242 million rural residents still do not have safe water to drink. [Ibid]

“Yet what is even more important than applying the new standards is protecting water sources from being polluted any further. In fact the repeated contamination of water sources in the past couple of years have offset or crippled the central government efforts. The same problem also happens in cities. For example, water from water works is safe, but if the pipelines are too old and fall short of the required standards the water may be contaminated by the time it reaches the tap. For many urban residents living in high rises, their tap water comes from the tanks in the buildings. If the tanks are not regularly cleaned as required, the water may not meet the new standards. [Ibid]

China’s Water Problems

Water problems in northern China aline include chronic droughts is ravaging farmland; the movement of the Gobi Desert eastward and southwater. The Yellow River, the so-called birthplace of Chinese civilization, is so polluted it can no longer supply drinking water. The rapid growth of megacities---22 million people in Beijing and 12 million in Tianjin alone---has drained underground aquifers that took millenniums to fill.

In December 2010, China said it would invest $30 billion in water-saving projects in 2011 with the primary ai being to reduce the impact of drought, flooding and other natural disasters in grain production. The decision comes on the heels of severe droughts and flooding driving u food prices and fueling inflation and social discontent.

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The Communist Party has staked enormous prestige on the success of the project, which is supposed be a showpiece for President Hu Jintao's theories of "scientific development." Hu is a hydraulic engineer by training who began his career at Sinohydro, the state-owned dam builder responsible for much of the construction.” "This is on a par with the Great Wall, a project essential for the survival of China," Wang Shushan, who heads the project in Henan province, where much of the construction is now taking place, told the Los Angeles Times. "It is a must-do project. We can't afford to wait." [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2010]

  • South-North Water Diversion Project

    Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “A chronic drought is ravaging farmland. The Gobi Desert is inching south. The Yellow River, the so-called birthplace of Chinese civilization, is so polluted it can no longer supply drinking water. The rapid growth of megacities---22 million people in Beijing and 12 million in Tianjin alone---has drained underground aquifers that took millenniums to fill. Not atypically, the Chinese government has a grand and expensive solution: Divert at least six trillion gallons of water each year hundreds of miles from the other great Chinese river, the Yangtze, to slake the thirst of the north China plain and its 440 million people. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, June 1, 2011]

    The South-North Water Diversion Project, Wong wrote, “would be like channeling water from the Mississippi River to meet the drinking needs of Boston, New York and Washington. Its $62 billion price tag is twice that of the Three Gorges Dam, which is the world’s largest hydroelectric project.” Yang Sheya, 38, an engineering supervisor working on the underground aqueduct along the banks of the Yellow River, told the Los Angeles Times, "It is a little like building the tunnel under the English Channel to connect France and England---except we're moving water, not vehicles.”

    The project’s official Web site says that the diversion “will be an important and basic facility for mitigating the existing crisis of water resources in north China” and that sufficient studies have been done. Wang Jian, a former environmental and water management official with the Beijing government and the State Council, China’s cabinet, agreed that the project “carries huge risks,” but he said there were no other options given the severity of the current water shortage. The middle route is to start major operations in 2014, and the eastern route is expected to be operational by 2013. The lines were originally supposed to open by the 2008 Summer Olympics, but have been hobbled by myriad problems. The western route, which would run at an average altitude of 10,000 to 13,000 feet across the Tibetan plateau to help irrigate the Yellow River basin, has been deemed too difficult to start for now.


    Only a fraction of one percent of the world’s water is available for drinking, bathing, agriculture and industry. About 96.5 percent of the world’s water is salt water in seas and oceans. Another once percent is salt water in lakes and brackish and salty groundwater. That means only 2.5 percent of the world’s water is fresh water. About 70 percent of the this is frozen in polar ice sheets and glaciers and around 29.5 percent is in deep, hard-to-reach aquifers.

    Lakes and rivers contain just slightly more than one forth of a percent of all freshwater. Soils and wetlands, plants and animals contain less than a tenth of a percent. Clouds and atmospheric water vapor contain less than four one-hundredths of a percent. Much of the freshwater that is available flows into the seas are ends in places that people don’t need it, such as in Canada and Siberia.

    Worldwide water use: 1) agriculture (70 percent); 2) industry (20 percent); and 3) domestic uses such as drinking, washing and flushing toilets (10 percent). Water has traditionally been a source of power and wealth in the developing countries. Powerful people often controlled wells and irrigation water.

    Well water is much safer than pond or even river water. The ground the water passes through helps filter out germs and impurities. Some villagers complain that it tasteless and say they prefer pond water. Even when a well is ready to use villagers are reluctant to use it. Ponds are used for rasing fishing and supplying drinking water for animals and irrigation water for crops.


    20080317-water shortage Xinhua3.jpg
    City water in some urban areas
    Aquifers are underground layers of porous rock that contain water. Shallow aquifers can be replenished by rain. Deep aquifers can not be quickly replenished. By some estimates there is a 100 times more underground water than there is surface water in lakes and rivers---enough to support billions of people for centuries.

    Much of the world’s water is at depths of one kilometer or more---too deep to be extracted economically. Drawing too much from shallow aquifers caused environmental damage. Once the water is gone it takes a long time for it be replenished.

    In the past drilling deep for water was not seriously considered because it was prohibitively expensive. But these days with water shortages and the rising value of water, drilling for water is being considered more seriously. In some places, geologists armed with same technology used in the oil industry---core drillers and seismographs---are exploring for water and massive underground mapping projects are being carried out to determines the size and amount of water deposits. `

    Water and Daily Life

    Only 10 percent of water worldwide is consumed for personal uses such as drinking, bathing and washing clothes and dishes. Each person needs about 48 liters (13 gallons of water) a day for drinking, cooking and sanitation. Even so, a sixth of world’s population gets by on less than that. Americans use an average of 400 liters of water per person per day. A lot this is water used for thing like irrigation and industry not just taking showers, washing cars and flushing toilets.

    Most homes in the developing world don't have running water or toilets. In rural areas, water is often fetched and carried from wells and streams or even ponds. Urban poor get their water from community spigots. The water is often of dubious quality and dirty enough to make those who drink it get sick.

    Rural people are very good at bathing in streams and rivers without removing their clothes.

    See Women Chores

    In past villagers had to walk long distances to well. Today, deep-boring machinery introduced by aid workers has enabled villages to have their own wells.

    Tube Wells

    20080317-21syn-well in farm 22hiuse beifan.jpg
    Village well
    A tube well is type of well comprised of a relatively narrow cylinders sunk into the ground and a hand pump above ground. It taps into clean groundwater or natural aquifers. Tube wells can be dug very deep using technology similar to that used in the oil industry.

    There is a concern that uncontrolled tube well use might lead to a water crisis. In some places farmers using tube wells with electric pumps are sucking up groundwater reserves much faster than can be replenished. Tens of thousands of these wells have been dug, often beyond official control. The problem is particularly acute in places where there is relatively little water and a particularly high number of people. In some cases the water is wasted nourishing water-thirsty crops like alfalfa, rice and sugar cane.

    Water and Agriculture

    See Agriculture


    See Dams and Hydro Power

    Water Problems

    20080317-8ChinaGRNPCwater shortages.jpg
    Water shortages
    The main problems with water are shortages of water, shortages of clean water and waterborne diseases. Around 80 percent of all deaths from illness in the developing world are caused by lack of access to safe water. More than 5 million people die each year from water-related diseases such as severe diarrhea, hepatitis A and dysentery.

    Growing populations, expanding agriculture, industrialization and high living standards have all boosted demand for water while drought, overuse and pollution have all decreased supplies. To make up for the shortfall water is often taken from lakes, rivers and wetlands, causing serious environmental damage. According to a 2003 United Nations report, “Across the globe, groundwater is being depleted by the demands of megacities and agriculture, while fertilizer runoff and pollution are threatening water quality and public health.”

    Every week it seems there are alarming predictions about water: disease, starvation, crop disasters, famines, war. One of the major challenge in many developing countries is to provide decent drinking water and sanitation to sprawling shanty towns and areas occupied by the urban poor in the cities. In rural area at least the poor can dig wells and take care of the sanitation in their fields.

    Water is wasted because of bad drainage, water pipes that leak, evaporation from reservoirs and canals, poor irrigation and industrial practices, and lack of wastewater and drinking water treatment.

    Water Pollution

    See Water Pollution, Environment, Nature

    Water Shortages

    See Water Shortages, Environment, Nature

    Image Sources: 1) Metropolitan News; 2) Xinhua; 3) Beifan.com http://www.beifan.com/; 4) Gary Braasch ;

    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.

    Last updated January 2014

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