China’s Water Crisis Hurts Them & Harm Us

In 2005, the Chinese Minister of Water Resources reportedly told journalists of the need “to fight for every drop of water or die, that is the challenge facing China”. Ex-Premier Wen Jiabao said that water shortages threatened “the very survival of the Chinese nation”.

More recently the China Water Risk and the China Dialogue continue to report that the situation had not improved in the intervening years.

China’s economy is structurally deficient in water resources and electric power. New coal fired power plants only make the situation worse because they also use huge amounts of water. Mining for coal and other minerals also demand large volumes of water and pollute rivers and ground water. 

More heavy industries, more factories, more urbanisation, more pollution of the ground and waterways will lead to less food and less power to feed the population, their heavy industries and factories.

Even though we have not yet witnessed China’s Apocalypse, there are profound implications for the future of global supply chains as China’s economy struggles to adjust. Structural deficiency raises risks of a near term economic hard landing in China, and seriously jeopardise the prospects of China hitting its 2060 carbon neutrality goals.

China’s economic growth and possibly social calm appear to be at risk by this policy of growth without respecting the environment. All countries need to consider the implications of these risks and ensure that we have sustainable supply chains from other nations that are not pursuing such high risk policies.   

The timeframe to resolve the twin water/power problem is likely measured in years; dialogue, cooperation and transparency are the keys to finding solutions.

It appears that China will is trying to solve this significant lack of water by blocking off waterways from neighbouring countries like Thailand, India, Bangladesh, Laos and others. They can suffer, and like Lithuania take the risk of being economically ruined if they dare criticise the big dragon. An aggressive stance by China only hurts themselves in the long-term, and bullying smaller countries is not a smart foreign policy if feelings are hurt!

Read on if you are interested – a study published in 2018 called “China’s Looming Water Crisis” by Charlie Parton of China Dialogue summarised the following:

China has 20% of the world’s population but only 7% of its water, with 80% of the water in the South, but 64% of the farmland and more than 50% of the people live in the North.

The internationally accepted definitions of water stress is having 1,700 m3 of water per person per year,  water scarcity 1,000 m3, and acute scarcity 500 m3 per person per year.

  • Total planned water use in 2015 was about 445 m3 per person per year.
  • From 2000-2009 total water reserves dropped 13%, and groundwater usage has doubled since 1970 and in 2013 made up 20% of water usage.
  • Over 300 out of 657 cities have water resources below the World Bank standard for water stress.
  • On 3 of the 7 major river systems (Hai, Yellow and Liao) exploitation levels have reached 106%, 82% and 76% against the internationally recognised maximum of 40%, and 28,000 rivers have disappeared across China in the last 20 years.
  • In Beijing and the North, 12 provinces suffer water scarcity, of which 8 suffer acute scarcity. All are north of the Yangtse. The average amount of water resources per Beijing resident was 300 m3 in 2008, and by 2012 it had fallen to 119 m3, and was in 2018 less than 100 m3.
  • The South North Water Diversion Project’s East and Central routes may deliver 20.9 billion m3 of water per year by 2030. If all went to Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei (it does not), their water sources would increase by approximately 186 m3per year, giving a total of about 420 m3 per year (c.  300 m3 for Beijing). Beijing’s population grew by c. 500,000 per year up to 2013, but will be capped at 23 million.
  • The Beijing water table has dropped between 100-300 metres since the 1970s according to the Economist in 2013.
  • To make matters worse – pollution in 2005 stated that 70% of the water in 5 out of 7 major river systems was too contaminated for human use. In 2014 three rivers had over 40% of their water graded at level IV or worse, one at 55% and one at 61%.
  • Of 13,500 km of the Yellow River basin system, 33.8% of water was worse than the UN’s level V, i.e. unfit for agricultural or industrial use, and over 20,000 petrochemical plants are built next to rivers, 10,000 on the Yangtse and 4,000 on the Yellow River.
  • In 2012 the government estimated that about 20% of water is too polluted even for agricultural or industrial purposes.
  • Groundwater: a 2014 survey of 202 cities and 4,896 test sites found that 45.4% of water was ‘relatively bad’ and 16.1% ‘extremely bad’.

Whatever one may think, the above facts are grim by any measure. Given the size of their population and given our dependence on their exports, there can be no question that this is a problem that deserves serious dialogue with the Chinese authorities now and not a decade from now.

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