China’s Massive Water Problem

This week saw the release of China’s first national water report, covering “river conditions, water conservancy projects, water consumption, river development and management, and water and soil conservation in 2011”. While hailing the country’s “remarkable” (and internationally recognized) achievements in water conservancy, deputy water resources minister Jiao Yong noted substandard flood control measures across over 80% of China’s rivers. Global Times’ Liu Linlin, on the other hand, reported that over half of the country’s rivers formerly covering 100km² or more had been downgraded, partly due to mapping changes and partly to “social development and climate change”:

It found that China currently has 22,909 rivers that each covers an area of more than 100 square kilometers, some 28,000 fewer than were counted during the 1990s.

[…] “Overexploitation of water resources and pollution are the two major problems. With demand from the industry and urban consumption increasing, the water supply is already being severely challenged, especially in North China,” Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, told the Global Times.

The national strategy should shift from increasing water supply to conservation and more efficient use of water, Ma added.

Marking the completion of the first phase of China’s South-to-North Water Diversion project, Scott Moore expanded on Ma’s advice in an op-ed at The New York Times:

In realizing Mao’s dream of moving huge quantities of water from areas of plenty to those of want, Beijing is building a modern marvel, this century’s equivalent of the Panama Canal. But whereas the canal inaugurated a century of faith in the ability of human ingenuity to reshape the natural world, the South-North Water Transfer Project is a testament to the limits of engineering solutions to problems of basic environmental scarcity.

[…] Ultimately, China needs significant political reform to meet the challenge of water scarcity. In order to make difficult decisions about who gets how much water, the country needs robust, transparent and participatory decision-making mechanisms. Moreover, in order to make policy ideas like water-rights reform work, the legal system and the rule of law must be strengthened. Finally, Beijing needs to stop relying on technology to avoid making hard choices about scarce resources. The United States and the rest of the world need to push the Chinese government to make its development more sustainable through political reform, lest China’s economy and social stability be endangered.

A 2011 Q&A with Kenneth Pomeranz at The China Beat (RIP) similarly challenged Beijing’s reliance on epic engineering over “fixing a million leaky faucets” (via CDT).

According to a separate study by the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences, meanwhile, 44% of shallow groundwater in the North China Plains is polluted, and little more than a fifth can be drunk without treatment. Marketplace’s Rob Schmitz counseled optimism:

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