Beijing Water

Experts warn China’s water supply may well run dry

South China Morning Post
September 1, 2003

‘Big engineering projects only make matters worse, causing us to reach the limits of our water resources. It is time to review our water strategy,’ says environmental consultant and author Ma Jun.

Water has long been the most precious of resources in north China, where rain barely falls for six months of the year.

Now rapid industrialisation and misguided policies threaten to create a chronic water shortage that could see economic growth in China’s heartland literally dry up.

The mainland’s annual per capita water availability currently stands at about 2,200 tonnes, just 25 per cent of the global average. The central government reckons the peak water shortage will come in 2030, when a population of 1.6 billion will have just 1,760 tonnes of water per person – a level defined by the UN as at the “threshold of concern”. The minister of water resources, Wang Shucheng , warns: “To fight for every drop of water or die – that is the challenge facing China.”

The situation is most desperate in the densely populated north China plain, which sweeps down from Beijing in the north to Jiangsu province in the Yangtze basin. Here the average water resource per head is about 710 tonnes, below the UN’s “danger threshold” of 1,000 tonnes. Tianjin , the driest city in the region, has a per capita supply below that of Saudi Arabia. Out of China’s 660 cities, more than 400 lack sufficient water supplies, of which 110 suffer from serious shortages.

Traditionally, government has increased water supply by building reservoirs and tapping underground reserves. About 75 per cent of the north China plain’s water supply is extracted from the aquifer. But this policy was now unsustainable, said Ma Jun, an environmental consultant and author of China’s Water Crisis. “In some cities, within eight to 10 years we will not be able to extract groundwater; we are coming to the very limit,” he said. In Beijing, the water table has fallen by almost 50 metres in a little over 50 years.

There are three broad solutions: giant engineering projects to move water from the water-rich south to the parched north; more market-based pricing to encourage efficient use; and improved recycling. True to form, the central government has opted for engineering projects and supply management, rather than trying to constrain demand and improve efficiency.

The keystone of national water management engineering is the 50-year, US$60-billion South-North water diversion project, which will finally realise Mao Zedong’s plan to water the arid northern plains with river water from the Yangtze. Although the scheme is set for completion by 2050, the first Yangtze water from the project should flow into the lake at the Summer Palace in Beijing in 2010.

Mr Ma said the scheme, which will provide an extra one billion tonnes of water annually to the arid north, would be a success “only as far as Beijing’s residents are concerned”, temporarily slaking the capital’s thirst and preventing a water crisis. Upstream, the diversion project will have severe social and environmental consequences.

Aside from the 300,000 people who will need to be relocated, the Yangtze tributary serving as the main artery for the diversion is expected to experience violent water flow fluctuations that threaten to degrade further an already fragile ecosystem.

“There’s too much emphasis on big engineering projects,” said Mr Ma. “Many projects have failed badly. Big engineering projects only make matters worse, causing us to reach the limits of our water resources. It is time to review our water strategy.”

He said a number of supply enhancement projects aimed at helping north China farmers irrigate crops in arid regions – such as building dams and introducing diesel-powered water pumps – contributed heavily to Tianjin’s severe water shortages.

About 75 per cent of north China’s crop production is based on irrigation, and much is unsuited to local conditions. More than 50 per cent of China’s wheat and almost 40 per cent of its cotton, both highly water-consumptive crops, are grown in three provinces in north China – Henan , Hebei and Shandong .

Reducing water use in agriculture is the key to the mainland’s water problem. Agriculture consumes 65 per cent of China’s water, compared to 25 per cent for industry and 10 per cent for residential users. Sou Lisheng, the Vice-Minister of water resources, said half of the water used by agriculture was wasted.

One solution would be to switch irrigated wheat land to vegetable production – a labour-intensive crop that would make more efficient use of China’s resources and bring higher financial returns. In theory, China could then “import” water by decreasing domestic production and buying more grain from countries where it can be grown more efficiently.

Although the switch from grain to vegetables got under way in 1998, this process has been limited by the government’s insistence that the country produce a minimum of 450 million tonnes of grain per year – the lowest figure acceptable to the influential food-security lobby in Beijing.

Water trading is another option. Pilot schemes are under way in Zhejiang province and the north China plain that allow downstream industrial users to pay farmers in upstream regions for their water rights. In theory, farmers raise income from selling a portion of their water rights and then invest in more water-efficient crops and technologies. A comprehensive system along these lines is probably many years away, however, because assigning and valuing water rights is difficult.

Water pricing is another political hotcake. Until 1985, water was provided free by the state, which gave scant incentive for farmers to invest in efficient irrigation technologies or for industry to worry about recycling wastewater. Despite modest price increases over the past 20 years, China’s water tariffs remain 70 to 80 per cent below those in countries with four times more water per capita. Construction Vice-Minister Qiu Baoxing recently hinted the government was beginning to take pricing reform seriously. Referring to a World Bank recommendation that water charges in developing countries should account for no more than 5 per cent of an average family’s income, he told journalists that there was still considerable “room for water prices to rise”. Beijingers have the highest water bills in the country, paying 3.7 yuan per tonne, about 1.8 per cent of household income. Prices are due to rise to the break-even point of six yuan per tonne over the next few years.

Similar price rises for farmers, however, conflict with the more urgent short-term goal of increasing rural incomes.

“We need to move from planned prices to a more market-based system – but the reforms cannot be made on a purely market basis because water is not a common market commodity. There is a social equity issue at stake here,” Mr Ma said.

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