Water Shortages: Desalination vs. Conservation

Seawater desalination may offer a promising supplement to diversion of freshwater to China’s dry north-east, especially as severe droughts in the south place the latter’s basic logic in question. Critics argue, though, that neither approach addresses the problem of excessive and inefficient water use. From The Economist:

Chinese officials are fond of grandiose engineering projects. After more than a decade of toil, one of the biggest since the construction of the Great Wall is close to achieving what they like to call a “decisive victory”. In coming months, canals and pipelines hundreds of kilometres long will bring water from the Yangzi River basin to the parched north. But growing demand is forcing officials to look for other sources. A promising one, they believe, is the sea.

[…] In its first five-year plan for the industry, in December, the government insisted that desalination was “of benefit to sustainable development”. It was better, it argued, than sucking more water out of the north’s fast-diminishing aquifers. That is surely right. Yet desalinating water uses enormous amounts of energy, which comes mainly from highly polluting coal (though Beijiang’s advanced technology is more efficient than that found in standard power plants). And diverting water from the river basin could exacerbate the impact of droughts in the south. No wonder that environmentalists complain that the government is relying on costly remedies, and doing too little to encourage conservation.

Historian Kenneth Pomeranz suggested in 2011 “that if you put anything like the cost of the South-North water diversion project into fixing a million leaky faucets, lining a million unlined irrigation ditches […] etc., etc., you could do more to alleviate the problem (and more safely) than the diversion project will do.”

In fact, “China is becoming a global hub of environmental experimentation” in water conservation, according to environmental economist Michael Bennett. But these innovative measures are limited in scope and forced to compete with the official penchant for Pharaonic engineering. At chinadialogue last month, Olivia Boyd examined China’s “split personality”:

One pressing question is whether the elements of government pushing for a continued emphasis on heavy engineering can be tamed. As impressive as China’s efforts to preserve its water resources may be, recent history holds a litany of controversial water-management schemes: the Three Gorges Dam, the South-North water transfer scheme and even an idea to pump sea water from the Bohai Gulf to Inner Mongolia to feed thirsty coal plants.

The South-North project currently tops the list. This Mao-era dream to divert water north from the Yangtze River, now under construction, has been criticised by economists and environmentalists for its expense, impacts on agriculture and mass relocations of communities, among other issues. Many, including Bennett, argue the government would do better to reform water pricing so that downtown hotels in parched Beijing no longer gush water from grand fountains, or golf courses guzzle resources keeping their courses green.

“The government has multiple personalities and one of them is obviously this pour more cement, create more infrastructure to solve water problems kind of approach,” says Bennett. “But there’s definitely a growing voice that says no, we need to price water accordingly, we need to invest proactively in improving the efficiency of how we use water.”

A Greenpeace investigation following a chemical spill in Shanxi in December highlighted the scale of the challenge. From Didi Kirsten Tatlow at IHT Rendezvous:

[…] Greenpeace found that the fast pace of water consumption by coal and chemical industries in the area is drying up all water resources further downstream. In fact, by 2015, water consumption by coal and chemical industry in China’s dry, western areas is set to use up a whopping quarter of the water flowing annually in the nearby Yellow River, which forms much of the border of Shanxi Province and is popularly known as China’s “Mother River,” wrote chinadialogue.

As chinadialogue wrote, citing Greenpeace, “Even more worrying than the chemical leak is the high water consumption of the coal and chemical industries in the area.”

[…] None of this may be news to hardened followers of China’s crumpling environment, but the scale of the water consumption in the water-scarce area is nonetheless shocking: The Tianji Coal Chemical Industry Group, which caused the spill, consumes water equivalent to the consumption of about 300,000 people per year, chinadialogue wrote, citing the Greenpeace investigation.

The Yellow and other rivers now carry so much pollution and so little water to the Bohai—from which the Beijiang desalination plant in the Economist article draws its water—that the sea is in danger of ecological collapse.

See more on water shortages and the South-North Water Diversion project on CDT.