Tag Archives: water conservation

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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Short Of Land, Hands and Water, China’s Grain Harvests Face Plateau

The record grain harvest last year despite a string of natural disasters masks the challenges facing China’s growers of wheat, rice and corn. A richer and growing population, urbanization and natural and man-made water shortages mean that supply is struggling to keep up with rising demand. The annual agriculture policy planning meeting last month noted that China’s 2010’s harvest of 546.4 million tones of grain, up 3% from the previous year, marked a seventh consecutive year of rising grain production, but also expressed concern at the vulnerability of the country’s harvest, particularly the wheat harvest, increasingly concentrated on the drought-prone North China Plain.

Less trumpeted was a concern that 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 already reached its limits after decades of seed and fertilizer improvement. Meanwhile grain farming remains inefficiently small scale and labour intensive, with acreage and younger farmers alike being lost to towns, exacerbating the longer-running effects of erosion, desertification and other environmental damage. Stocks and imports cover the gap with increasing demand, so there is little risk of shortages. China already 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 balance between supply and demand is now so finely balanced that the government says it felt it necessary to spend 828 billion yuan ($125 billion) to boost grain production and combat natural disasters in 2010. It is impossible to break down that number in any detail, though China lost 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres) of crops to natural disasters, by the official count, with a further 20 million hectares of farmland damaged. To put that into context, 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.

Financial incentives to farmers to raise grain output have not been effective hitherto. The Party’s annual economic planning session held ahead of the farm-policy planning meeting agreed to increase subsidies further for agricultural production and steadily raise the minimum state grain purchase price this year. And there has been a crackdown of sorts on the illegal conversion of arable land to industrial use. But none of that does anything to stop water tables falling across the North China Plain, the country’s bread basket. There cities and industries consume ever more water and drought has become more commonplace. Depleted aquifers and dried-up irrigation wells are leading grain farmers to turn to low-yield dry-land farming, abandon double cropping and even farming altogether.

Grain needs copious amounts of irrigation. Nationally, agriculture accounts for two-thirds of the country’s water use, though it accounts for only 13% of GDP. Water conservation is to be “one of China’ s major tasks in agricultural work” this year, according to the statement issued after the farm-policy meeting which laid out 2011’s priorities to be to “step up research and development into water conservation projects while keeping grain supplies stable, increasing farmers’ incomes and deepening rural reforms”. Notably, water conservation rates mention ahead of two 0f the country’s top economic policy objectives, food price controls to fight inflation and raising incomes for the 850,000 who work on farms to close the urban-rural wealth gap.

State media say the government expects to spend 200 billion yuan on water-conservation projects this year, 10% more than in 2010, with priority given to irrigation projects that improve grain output and that combat drought and floods. Over the next ten years it expects to double its current average annual investment in water-conservation infrastructure. Whether it will be enough will partly lie in the hands of nature and the extent of the damage the inevitable floods and drought will cause. Either way it looks like being a damned close run affair.

 

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