Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Focus on water in China

The World Water Forum, which convened last week in Turkey, may not be the sexiest of international environmental gatherings. But it is likely to become one of the most important, for the chief human impact of climate change is likely to be profound changes in the availability and distribution of fresh water. Mindful of such importance, this post focuses on China's water situation in an age of climate change.

The devastating drought which hit northern China in recent months, affecting some 10.3 million hectares, was a potent reminder of the nation's precarious water situation. One farmer was quoted as saying, "I haven't seen such a severe drought in my life" (see Xinhua). Overpopulation, exacerbated by decades of disastrous, yield-maximizing agricultural policies, has devastated large portions of northern China, leaving it vulnerable to desertification, which climate change in turn is accelerating. Poor soil management results in extensive erosion; one recent report claimed that China loses 1 million mu (about 0.6 acres) of arable land annually to soil erosion (see Renmin Ribao, in Chinese only). In the meantime, climate models, while subject to significant uncertainty, suggest that seasonal runoff from the Himalayan plateau is likely to decrease precipitously in the coming years, affecting nearly all of China's major river systems (see previous post).

The gravity of the situation has not gone unnoticed by China's government. Its response to the drought was swift, issuing a "red alert" in some areas of the country, and providing emergency assistance. Meanwhile, experts issued a string of announcements focusing better on water management and efficiency. The President of the China Agricultural University emphasized water-saving irrigation techniques: "To deal with climate abnormalities, a growing water shortage, and the threat to food security, we must speed the use of farming and irrigation methods that save water" (see Xinhua). In early March, the powerful National Development and Reform Commission vowed to lower industrial water consumption by 5.6% and to increase the utilization of industrial wastewater to some 66% in 2009.

At the World Water Forum itself, China's Minister of Water Resources, Chen Lei, vowed to increase China's efforts to develop water resources for sustainable development. Chen highlighted ten areas where the government would ramp up water infrastructure investment:
"the reinforcement of risky reservoirs, rural drinking water security, water saving facility upgrading in large-scale irrigation areas, comprehensive management of major rivers and lakes, rehabilitation and upgrading of large-scale irrigation pumping stations, key water projects and water sources, water infrastructure construction in farmland, water and soil conservation, rural hydropower development and electrification, as well as capacity building" (see Xinhua).
At the Forum, China also issued a joint statement with Japan and South Korea pledging cooperation, information sharing, and "trilateral cooperation" on water issues (see Xinhua). There are a great many areas of fruitful cooperation on water management issues, including eco-compensation and watershed management.

The attention being devoted to water issues is welcome, but it's likely to be insufficient, for three primary reasons. First, China's main approach to water resource management so far has been to conduct giant engineering projects, like the South-North Water Transfer effort to bring water from the south to the arid north. But engineering alone is little more than a stop-gap measure, which a recent reservoir project in Shanghai illustrates. The Shanghai region, being a low-lying coastal estuary, is vulnerable to salt tides, which contaminate freshwater supplies. As the sea level rises, salt tides are a growing concern in coastal areas around the world. The government's response to salt tides has been to construct the giant Qingcaosha reservoir, with a capacity of 7.2 million cubic meters. But as the Shanghai Daily article announcing the reservoir notes, "A new reservoir is by no means the long-term answer to the city's chronic lack of clean water." Silt from the Yangtze (another result of soil erosion), the article notes, is likely to clog the reservoir. Moreover, if runoff to the Yangtze declines as propitiously as predicted, Shanghai may have to resort to expensive desalinization to supply adequate freshwater. Despite the temptation to think so, humanity can't simply engineer itself out of water shortages.

Which leads to the second challenge confronting water management in China: the shamefully low price of water. Despite continual pledges to raise it (see China.org.cn), the Chinese government has found it difficult to make poor peasant farmers, who account for the majority of wasteful water use in China, pay significantly more for water. As a result, the price remains too low to encourage the most advanced water saving techniques. According to one water expert, "Although water-saving measures are used in northern China, many mature technologies aren't popular because of the high cost and low awareness of saving water" (see Xinhua). So the impasse continues: as long as the government remains undecided about how to encourage rural economic development without raising the price of water, China's agricultural sector will continue to waste large amounts of water.

This is a dangerous path to tread, since there is likely to be less and less of it, at least in northern China. Climate change means that droughts and flooding are both likely to become more severe, and while the distribution of precipitation will undoubtedly change in many regions, it's likely to be for the worse. Engineering projects, like reservoirs and desalinization plants, will help with adaptation and the stabilization of drinking water supplies, but ultimately such engineering will not compensate for the shifts in water availability. That requires tackling climate change. So far, as CGS has continually documented, China has taken a very conservative position on climate issues (see previous post).

However, as a recent China Daily editorial illustrates, China is re-evaluating its stance as the crucial Copenhagen climate conference approaches in December. Climate change, the editorial notes, "is hitting the Asian continent already." Repeating a standard Chinese government line, the editorial emphasizes that Asian nations should push for more money for adaptation, but then goes on to note that "The focus on adaptation...should not distract us from also paying attention to the other major building block, mitigation, and formulating a clear strategy on the issue." While the focus should remain on pushing developed nations to reduce emissions, the editorial also says that calls for "urging larger developing countries to take whatever actions they can to reduce theirs without hampering their development aspirations." Most importantly, the editorial hits the right note in concluding that the Copenhagen agreement "will determine the fate of the world, in particular Asia, for decades to come."

Water is a key environmental issue for China, Asia, and the world, making its management one of the foremost considerations for policymakers everywhere. This requires negotiating thorny issues of access, fighting important agricultural constituencies, and many other issues. But it also entails solving the climate problem- the over-arching, all-important wildcard on the fate of which all other environmental issues will ultimately rest.


  1. What a well-researched and thoughtful entry, I'm really glad I got to read this. I agree that China's embrace of big technocratic fixes is not going to provide any long-term solutions. What I suspect though, is that the Chinese government also knows this. They still go for it because, as you imply, despite the high price tags and logistical challenges of projects like the South-North Diversion, implementing small-scale conservation and efficiency measures across the whole country that would eliminate the demand for these big engineering projects may be even harder for the government than the engineering projects themselves.

  2. A combination of better water management, better perservation and innovations can be more beneficial than an enormous engineering project such as South-North Diversion that may not produce the type of benefit for the cost invested at all.

    Recently, I have heard of a technology called "Seawater Greenhouse". "Seawater Greenhouse is a unique concept which combines natural processes, simple construction techniques and mathematical computer modelling to provide a low-cost solution to one of the world's greatest needs – fresh water. The Seawater Greenhouse is a new development that offers sustainable solution to the problem of providing water for agriculture in arid, coastal regions."

    Taken from http://www.seawatergreenhouse.com/index.htm