Quenching China’s Thirst for Water
As world population swells and the threats of climate change become increasingly prominent, freshwater resource security is a growing concern around the world. Rapid urbanization and industrialization in countries like China only serves to hasten an imminent water crisis, as recent droughts in the normally lush south have shown. An article in Forbes describes China’s precarious water situation and how the current five-year-plan is addressing it:
China’s water issues are particularly acute. The country’s water supply is smaller than that of the U.S., yet it must meet the needs of a population nearly five times as large. Industrialization has taken its toll on this already limited resource. Industrial and biological pollution has contaminated almost 90 percent of the underground water in Chinese cities. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that one out of four (300 million) Chinese do not have daily access to clean water, and that one out of two (700 million) are forced to consume water below WHO standards. High population density, a poor ratio of available water to demand, and regional imbalances in available water supplies are serious challenges for China in managing its usable water supply. Frequent floods ravage cities in the south and east, and droughts are a regular occurrence in the north and west.
[…]In its 12th Five-Year Plan which began in 2011, China will shift its environmental focus to water. From 2011 to 2015, the country will spend a total of $536 billion on water purification and waste water treatment plants, irrigation systems, and flood control projects. Currently, only 50 percent of urban sewage is treated. By 2015, the government intends to add 42 million tons of daily sewage treatment capacity to increase its urban waste water treatment rate to 85 percent.
[…]Implementation of the water-related programs called for in the 12th Five-Year Plan has already begun. In 2011, the first year of the plan, total spending on water resources management increased significantly to RMB 345.2 billion ($54.6 billion). In addition to water treatment and recycling, China has already initiated programs to limit the loss of human life and property damage caused by flash floods. At the end of last year, RMB 3.8 billion ($603 million) was earmarked to subsidize flash-flood forecasting projects in 1,100 counties throughout the country. It is expected that the number of counties will be increased to 1,800 and that $1.8 billion will be spent on flash-flood forecasting programs by 2013.
Within a political culture that has prized economic growth above almost anything else for most of the last three decades, getting local leaders to accommodate slower growth by tabling water-intensive industrial and power-generation plans will be easier said than done.
Even if China were today able to simply turn on a dime, the question of whether it would be too late ominously hangs over the entire issue of the country’s water shortage. Elizabeth Economy, a Senior Fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, is one of the pre-eminent scholars on China’s environmental and water scarcity challenges.
She testified at the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission in January that, relative to China’s water supply problems, “a number of factors, such as corruption, lack of human and financial resources, and a weak policy environment have often undermined fulfillment of Beijing’s goals. A preference for large projects also hampers effective planning.” She went on to state “None of these policies-taken alone or collectively-has been sufficient to address the challenge at hand.”