China’s Water

China is running out of water. Probe International and a team of  China-based researchers were the first to publish the startling details of China’s disappearing rivers, lakes, and groundwater to overuse and pollution in our landmark report Beijing’s Water Crisis: 1949 — 2008 Olympics.

Since then, the extent of China’s water crisis − Beijing’s water crisis writ large − has been exposed. The details are threatening, not only for China’s economy, but for the health of its 1.4 billion citizens. Here’s why:

  • China, with only 7% of the world’s fresh water and more than 20% of the world’s population, has per capita water resources of about one-quarter the world average;
  • At least ten provinces in China are below the World Bank’s poverty level of 1,000 cubic meters of water per person per year; and more than 400 cities lack sufficient water, 110 of which are facing serious scarcity;
  • In Beijing, per capita water resources declined to only 120 cubic meters per year in 2011, compared to the global annual average of 1,385 cubic meters;
  • Beijing’s water table has dropped 12-24 meters and the capital city is sinking 10-20 millimeters per year as its aquifers are drained faster than they can be replenished;
  • Over 50 cities in China are threatened by land subsidence, including those in the delta region of the Yangtze River, the North China Plain and the Fen-Wei River due to excessive groundwater exploitation;
  • By 1997, after the construction of more than 3,300 dams, the Yellow River, once known as the “cradle of Chinese civilization,” all but dried up;
  • A February 2013 report by the Geological Survey of China revealed that 90 percent of the country’s groundwater is polluted;
  • Agriculture runoffs from fertilizers, pesticides and livestock waste account for more than half of China’s water pollution;
  • The Chinese government now acknowledges the existence of some 450 “cancer villages,” where power plants and industrial facilities are poisoning villagers’ water and causing unusually high death rates;
  • Industry, which accounts for around one-quarter of China’s total water consumption, uses anywhere from four to ten times more water per unit of GDP as other industrialized countries;
  • Only about 40% of water used in industry is recycled, half as much as in Europe;
  • China is neglecting its urban water infrastructure (sewerage, pipes and water-treatment plants), leading to more waste;
  • Water prices in most cities are only about a tenth the level in big European cities.

China’s industrial transformation in the past 25 years saw it become the “factory of the world,” undertaken without regulation, environmental laws, liability, and riparian rights. As a result, widespread dumping of toxic chemicals and industrial waste is now poisoning the country’s rivers, lakes and groundwater and, ultimately, its citizens.

While giving industry the right to dump pollutants into rivers with impunity, the Communist Party of China has simultaneously used strong-armed command and control techniques to divert water from the country’s water abundant south to its water deficient north, through mega-engineering schemes such as the South-North Water Diversion Project.

Though widely condemned as economically and environmentally ruinous, this scheme, and others, are favoured by the Communist Party. Far better to give citizens the power to allocate and protect their water sources using the rule of law and markets.

Probe International analyzes China’s water crisis and investigates solutions to it on these pages. We invite you to delve.


Beijing’s water crisis

Beijing Public Opinion Survey – 2010

Dai Qing

South-North Water Diversion Project

Oral Histories

Water Markets

Water Companies

Photo Gallery

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