Tag Archives: North China Plain

Pumping Greenhouse Gases From Deep Below The North China Plain

Pumping water from the deep aquifer below the increasingly arid North China Plain has a hidden cost beyond the depletion of irreplaceable water resources, a new joint UK-China study reveals. Farmers are now pumping so much irrigation water from such deep levels, up to 70 meters-80 meters below ground in some provinces, that the energy required to drill the wells and run the diesel pumps accounts for more than half a percent of China’s total greenhouse-gas emissions.

Overall, farming accounts for 17–20% of China’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions, the study’s authors say. Pumping water for irrigation is one of farmers’ most energy intensive activities. The study, conducted by scientists from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the U.K.’s University of East Anglia, claims to be the first detailed estimate of greenhouse-gas emissions from groundwater pumping for irrigation. The authors say its shows that “significant potential exists to promote the co-benefits of water and energy saving in order to meet national planning targets”.

The scale of the challenge of realizing those benefits is that the current five-year plan aims to increase irrigation water use efficiency by 3% by 2015, emphasizing the importance of improving groundwater resource management to control over-exploitation. However, this is to be achieved whilst increasing total grain production by 13% to 450 million tonnes and decreasing national energy consumption per unit of GDP by 16%.

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Shanghai Becomes More Like Venice, In A Bad Way

So serious has the depletion of China’s groundwater become as a result of industrialization and urbanization that the country’s large cities are sinking, as, potentially, are the high-speed rail corridors between them. So concerning is that to authorities that the State Council has made areas with high-speed rail links a priority in a new land subsidence research project it has approved to be completed by 2015. In the order of these things, that is a crash deadline.

The survey is one of four projects that the Ministry of Land and Resources said this week that the State Council had ratified to combat the effects of China’s growing water shortage. Others include yet more controls on pumping underground water, and the setting up of monitoring networks in the worst affected areas–the Yangtze river delta, the North China Plain and the Fen and Hua river basins. The network is to be in place by 2020.

It didn’t take any technology to see the 8 meter crack that opened up earlier this month in a road near the Shanghai World Financial Center. (There are some pictures here.) That is despite authorities taking preventive measures since 2005 to combat ground subsidence caused by falling water tables. Municipal officials say the city is still sinking by seven millimeters a year. That is a better state of affairs than in the past, however. Shanghai used to be sinking by several centimeters a year.

A third of China’s water reserves lie in underground aquifers. They supply 70% of the country’s drinking water and 40% of its farm irrigation needs. They are being stretched to their limits, particularly across the grain belt of the North China Plain as evermore wells are sunk to draw water for city dwellers and industry. Underground water pollution is a separate concern, but as serious.

Shanghai is one of more than 50 large cities with a similar Venice-like problem of subsidence because the water table below it is sinking. Beijing, Tianjin, Hangzhou and Xian are among others. As the number of 50 cities has been quoted since at least 2006, we suspect it may undercount the problem today. In a paper the China Geological Survey published that year the direct economic cost of subsidence was put at 1 billion yuan ($160 million) a year. It will likely top that now.

Tianjin, which like Shanghai has been sinking since the 1920s although it wasn’t until the 1960s that it was understood why, shows why widespread limits on groundwater pumping are so urgent, and also how difficult it is to control subsidence. The city introduced restrictions as long ago as 1985. Its sinking has slowed from 80 millimeters a year then but is still dropping 20 millimeters a year now. Coastal cities share another characteristic with Venice. Floods are becoming more frequent and severe. The lower cities sink the more susceptible they are to them.

We have noted before the potential explosive social costs of a water crisis getting beyond the government’s control. It will take a comprehensive program of water conservation, better water resource management and better husbandry of the ecosystem. And there are plans on all those fronts. But if they fail, it will be more than a high-speed train or two that comes off the rails.

 

 

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Ever More Arid China

A villager walks on the cracked croplands in Pingman Village of Tianlin County, south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Sept. 7, 2011.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.

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One Crop Failure From Catastrophe

A peasant is happily showing her harvested wheat in Ganyu County, east China's Jiangsu Province, Oct. 17, 2011.

China’s farmers have been buying land abroad, from Africa to South America, and they should be buying more, according to the prominent Chinese economist David Daokui Li, to forestall a potentially catastrophic grain shortage that faces the country.

Li suggests that it would only take one bad crop to throw the world into food shortage. “We can imagine that with the frequency and severity of natural disasters in China as well as in other parts of the world, the overall global grain output will be decreased, which will pose a potentially grave threat to grain security, leading to worldwide food shortages and resulting in global inflation in food prices,” he says.

Li comments came in an interview published by Insead, the French management school that has a partnership with Tsinghua University, where Li is Director of the Center for China in the World Economy. He is also a member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the People’s Bank of China.

Buying more farm land overseas, Li says, “will not only work towards China’s self-interest, but will also contribute to helping to solve the wider global grain supply problem.”

China’s leadership has been repeatedly expressing its concern about the future of the country’s grain supplies. Regardless of record harvests being reported year after year for seven years despite a string of natural disasters, there is no hiding  the challenges facing China’s growers of wheat, rice and corn. A richer and growing population, urbanization and natural and man-made water shortages have  left supply struggling to keep up with rising demand.

The vulnerability of the country’s harvest, particularly the wheat harvest, increasingly concentrated on the drought-prone North China Plain, is only too clear to see. China is reaching the the edge of its capacity to keep its grain harvests increasing. Agri-technology is still boosting fruit and vegetable yields, but grain may have reached its limits after decades of seed and fertilizer improvement. In addition, grain farming remains inefficiently small scale and labour intensive, as is suggested by the photo above of a farmer from Ganyu County in Jiangsu. Acreage and younger farmers alike are also being lost to towns, exacerbating the longer-running effects of erosion, desertification and other environmental damage.

Stocks and imports have covered the gap with growing demand, forestalling, so far, the sort of shortages that Li fears. China imports more than 4 million tonnes of corn (mainly for animal feed) and more than 1 million tonnes of both wheat and barley a year. But being subject to world commodity markets pushes up prices, and no country likes to feel it can’t be self-sufficient in food, especially when it has an increasing number of mouths to feed.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates China to have 137 million hectares of arable land. China itself reckons 120 million hectares to be the minimum needed to maintain food security. All agree that the hectarage is moving in the direction of the smaller number, with the shrinkage of the area under grain shrinking causing most concern. Better water management, a national priority under the current five year plan, can reclaim some land for farming, but beyond that, as Li suggests, there is only one place to get any more.

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Relieving Parched China

Zhao Qingde, a local villager, collects water to feed cattle from a reservoir which is drying up at drought-affected Ayulin Village of Shilin Yi Autonomous County, southwest China's Yunnan Province, Sept. 7, 2011. Lingering drought has affected 16,987 hectares, or nearly 70 percent of the total area, of crops throughout the county.

The newly approved 10-year drought alleviation plan lifts a corner on the extent of China’s growing water shortages. Two out of three of the country’s counties and 110 out of its 658 cities have suffered from water shortages, according to a statement issued after the State Council meeting approving the plan. This 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. Meanwhile drought in the wheat belt on the North China Plain has become all but the norm, leading to growing concern about grain supply.

Fifty years ago China had half as many natural lakes again as it does today. Climate change and growing demands for water are the cause of drought occurring increasingly frequently. The new plan is to build more reservoirs, set up a drought-monitoring network to help with early drought relief, and promote water conservation, particularly in agriculture. Price controls may be imposed on projects that consume large amounts of water. The goal is to “significantly improve” access to drinking water in drought-hit counties by 2015 and to ensure safe supplies of drinking and irrigation water within five years after that.

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Drought Now Reported In Southwest China

Xinhua says that 190,000 people in one county in the Chongqing municipality in southwest China face water shortages because of a lack of rain for four months. Ponds and wells are said to have dried up. Light rain is in the forecast for the area for the next few days but it is unlikely to be sufficient to break the drought.

Unlike the North China Plain where drought is posing a serious threat to China’s grain harvest, the Sichuan basin is more a producer of livestock, milk, poultry, eggs and vegetables. Chongqing municipality and Sichuan, from which it was carved out in 1997, account for 10% of national meat production and 7% of the country’s eggs. If the drought persists, the risk is to the fodder crops for livestock, which could mean more corn having to be bought, putting further pressure on grain prices. If the dry weather is accompanied by above normal temperatures that will put chickens at risk of death from heat exposure.

 

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Satellite Image Of Snow On North China Plain

How lightly it has been snowing on the drought-afflicted North China Plain is shown by this satellite image taken in the early afternoon of Feb. 14th by the China Meteorological Administration‘s FY3B’s meteorological satellite. Snow cover is indicated by the areas in blue.

The plain only got its first snowfalls of the season this month, a light dusting despite extensive cloud-seeding. No more rain or snow is in the forecast for the next few days. The drought continues unalleviated. Vice Premier Hui Liangyu, at the end of a three day visit to Shanxi, called for preparations for a long-term fight against drought.

Update: Peversely, barely 750 miles away the east coast of the Korean peninsula has had days of record snowfalls, with rescue helicopters being needed to drop food to cut-off villages.

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