Wall Street Journal: China’s Water Problems Are Even Worse Than You Think

Chinese Government’s efforts to solve country’s deepening water crisis by redistributing supply is exacerbating the problem, says report. More emphasis should be placed on water demand management.

By Te-Ping Chen, Wall Street Journal blog.

Let China sleep, for when she wakes she will shake the world, Napoleon once supposedly said. He might also have warned: Let China sleep, for when she wakes she will be really, really thirsty.

A new report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal says China’s water shortage crisis is likely to deepen as the country continues to develop. Government efforts to try and redistribute water from relatively water-wealthy regions to more parched provinces are also likely to further exacerbate the problem, the authors say.

In an interview, co-author Dabo Guan criticized the so-called South-North Water Transfer Project — a $81 billion effort to re-route water from the south to the drier north – in particular. While the government has touted its elaborate solution to the Chinese capital’s rapidly falling water table, Mr. Guan said that by 2020 the additional water infusions brought by the project — which recently began delivering water to Beijing — would likely satisfy only 5% of the city’s overall demand.

“A metaphor is, if you have a cold, if you have a temperature, antibiotics is the cure, it’s the solution.” By contrast, the transfer project is “like paracetamol,” a pain reliever, said Mr. Guan, professor at the University of East Anglia.

According to the United Nations, though China is home to 21% of the world’s population, it contains only 7% of the world’s freshwater supplies. Particularly in its north, the country is deeply parched – so much so that the government last week said it would begin encouraging people to eat potatoes, rather than more water-intensive traditional staples such as rice and wheat, to try and conserve water.

Prior to the arrival of infusions from the south, Beijing’s per-capita water volume was just 100 cubic meters, 1.25% of the world’s average level. With the water from the south, that figure will go up to 150 cubic meters per person, according to state media reports.

The UN says a region is considered “water-stressed” when annual water supplies dip below 1,700 cubic meters per person.

In addition to the physical rerouting of China’s water flows, the report’s authors say that numerous water-strapped provinces end up inadvertently exporting their own water by producing water-intensive goods like coal and livestock that get shipped off to other, wealthier regions. As a consequence of these so-called “virtual” water exports, Mr. Guan says, water-poor provinces find their supplies even more strained.

Xinjiang, Heilongjiang, Inner Mongolia, Guangxi and Hunan provinces are the losers, accounting for 78% of virtual water exports, the report says. Comparatively water-rich regions like Shanghai, Guangdong and Zhejiang rank among the top virtual importers. Nationwide, such virtual exports account for more than one-third of the country’s national water supply.

To address the country’s appetite for water, Mr. Guan advocates a greater push for more effective use—for example, fighting leakage in agricultural irrigation—as well as consumer cutbacks and a shift toward less water-intensive industries, such as the service industry.

Still, the report’s authors sound a pessimistic note, given the Middle Kingdom’s continuing high rates of growth: “Improving water use efficiency is key to mitigating water stress, but the efficiency gains will be largely offset by the water demand increase caused by continued economic development,” they write.