The most difficult natural resource for a country short of it to acquire is the one most vital to life: water. Nature has not dealt China a good hand. It has a fifth of the world’s population but only a fifteenth of its fresh water. But it has played a poor hand badly. And unlike, say soya beans, iron ore or any other commodity for which rising prosperity is increasing demand beyond the country’s capacity to supply, China can’t just ship in water from distant lands.
How seriously short of water China has become was emphasized again this week by Hu Siyi, vice-minister of water resources. Even though China consumes more than 600 billion cubic meters of water a year, that is more than 50 billion cubic meters less than it needs. To put a more human face on the shortfall, nearly 300 million rural residents lack access to safe drinking water. Two-thirds of Chinese cities are ‘water-needy’, to use Hu’s phrase, which seems to be a marked worsening of the situation from last November when a State Council announcement of a 10-year drought-alleviation plan said 110 out of China’s 658 cities had suffered from water shortages. Meanwhile, two in five Chinese rivers are seriously polluted and unfit for drinking because sewage and waste water has been discharged into them. One in five is so polluted it is rated Category 5 on a scale of 1-5 for water quality. Category 5 means too toxic even to touch.
Rapid industrialization and urbanization has driven both the shortages and degradation of the water supply compounded by climate change. Drought in the wheat belt on the North China Plain has become all but the norm, leading to growing concern about grain supply. At the northeastern end of the plain, the capital’s growing thirst only compounds the problem. Last summer’s persistent drought in southwestern China left 14 million people short of drinking water, damaged millions of hectares of farmland and left industry short of power after river levels fell too low to drive hydroelectric power generation plants. This week, more than 3 million people are short of water because of the drought lingering in Yunnan and other ones in Jiangxi and Inner Mongolia.
An international spotlight has fallen on the shriveling of Poyang Lake, China’s largest freshwater lake, home to the rare finless porpoise and winter home for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds including the Siberian crane which have traditionally depended just as much on the lake’s dwindling fish stocks as Poyang’s increasingly unemployed human fishermen. Yet its story is not uncommon. Fifty years ago China had half as many natural lakes again as it does today. Two thirds of those that have survived are chemically polluted. That is scarcely a better fate than the hundreds of smaller lakes along the Yangtze basin that have dried out completely or been drained for farmland and housing.
Hu acknowledges that water shortages, serious river and lake pollution and the deteriorating aquatic ecology threaten the country’s sustainable growth. Such a disruption to the country’s economic and social development would pose a direct threat to the Party legitimacy to rule, hence the gravity with which it is being taken at the highest levels of government. “We must put in place the strictest water resources management system,” Hu says.
New guidelines cap national water consumption at 670 billion cubic meters by 2020, and 700 billion cubic meters by 2030, with compulsory measures to enforce them and a system of water-use licenses to be introduced. It will be a tough target to meet, even with the help of 4 trillion yuan ($635 billion) designated for water conservation projects during the current five-year plan, which calls for a repeat of the 20% reduction in water consumption per unit of output achieved under the previous plan. The long-term goal is to reduce water consumption per unit of output by 60% from 2005 levels.
Strict water resources management also means reining in the untrammeled provincial hyrdo-dam building and urban water diversion projects, as well as taking greater control over local drilling into deep aquifers, a short-term solution that will cause long-term problems as it is tapping the reservoirs of last resort. This is a particular issue on the North China Plain. On top of that, Beijing will have to enforce existing environmental protections and good water management policies, which often get brushed aside by local officials for whom promoting economic growth is the priority and a river or lake seen as little more than a self-cleaning sewer for industry that they don’t have to build. Step one will be to end the fragmentation of water management among various ministries and levels of government. Beijing will also have to promote the reuse and recycling of urban water, improve irrigation methods in the countryside (farmers use 85% of China’s water), end water subsidies and make industry less wasteful users of water. International companies like Siemens and GE see big potential business in all this.
China remains a water hog even by BRICS’ standards and the economy is still growing fast enough for it to be a perpetual race to keep up. Yet so unsustainable is the current demand for water, if Beijing doesn’t deal with the crisis, it faces the prospect of water civil wars as farmers, city dwellers and industry fight for who gets what water there is in China. In 2004, the World Bank warned of the possibility of tens of thousands of environmental internal refugees, fleeing the increasingly arid North China Plain, which has 42% of China’s population but only 8% of its water. Hu’s latest comments suggest the prospect is now not that far-fetched.