Beijing’s plan to sink 1,350 wells across the North China Plain (see map, right) to alleviate the drought in the country’s wheat belt that has persisted since October is a sticking-plaster not a cure. We don’t yet know the details of the proposed drilling, but it is a fair bet that the wells will have to drop to the deep aquifer. The plain’s water table has been shrinking for years under the onslaught of desertification, urbanization and industrialization, compounded by periodic droughts. The result has been to make the plain increasingly arid as the water table has been unable to replenish itself adequately. Drawing water from the deep aquifer is equivalent to a pensioner dipping into their capital once the interest from it becomes too small to live off.
The North China Plain needs a modern irrigation system and a comprehensive water conservation policy that encompasses both the wheat lands and the water-hogging cities on the plain, notably Beijing and Tianjin. Beijing has plans, including grand plans, and has recently been throwing money at emergency drought alleviation and making water conservation a policy priority as the leadership gets evermore anxious about the grain supply. But it is all too reactive. For a country that prides itself on its central planning, its water management has been weak.
Governments often suspend the laws of economics when it comes to agriculture because of national food security concerns and a desire to support rural communities. There are plenty examples around the world of governments spending vast sums of money on irrigation schemes to turn deserts green. Yet this Bystander is starting to wonder if policymakers should be starting to think the unthinkable: at what point does watering the North China Plain start to become just too expensive, and a new sort of agriculture become needed.