China con­tin­ues to strug­gle for wa­ter se­cu­rity


Way back in 1999, be­fore he be­came China's prime min­is­ter, Wen Ji­abao warned that wa­ter scarcity posed one of the great­est threats to the "sur­vival of the na­tion."

Six­teen years later, that threat looms ever larger, cast­ing a for­bid­ding shadow over China's en­ergy and food se­cu­rity and de­mand­ing ur­gent so­lu­tions with sig­nif­i­cant re­gional, and even global, con­se­quences.

The mount­ing pres­sure on China's scarce, un­equally dis­trib­uted and of­ten highly pol­luted wa­ter sup­ply was high­lighted in a re­port re­leased at the World Wa­ter Fo­rum this week in Daegu, South Korea.

Pub­lished by the Hong Kong­based NGO, China Wa­ter Risk (CWR), it un­der­lined the com­plex­ity of the chal­lenge fac­ing China as it seeks to jug­gle in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked and of­ten com­pet­ing con­cerns over wa­ter, en­ergy sup­ply and cli­mate change.

"There are no one-size-fits-all so­lu­tions to China's wa­ter-en­er­gy­cli­mate nexus," the re­port said.

"More im­por­tantly, China's en­ergy choices do not only im­pact global cli­mate change, but af­fect wa­ter avail­abil­ity for Asia," it said, warn­ing of the dan­ger of fu­ture "wa­ter wars" given China's up­stream con­trol over Asia's might­i­est rivers.

The Qing­hai-Ti­betan plateau is es­sen­tially the world's largest wa­ter tank and the ori­gin of some of Asia's most ex­ten­sive river sys­tems in­clud­ing the In­dus, Brahma­pu­tra and Mekong.

The most sig­nif­i­cant link in the nexus the re­port de­scribes is the fact that 93 per­cent of China's power gen­er­a­tion is wa­ter-re­liant.

"Chi­nese of­fi­cials are start­ing to say wa­ter se­cu­rity comes first," the re­port's au­thor De­bra Tan told AFP in Daegu. "Be­cause with­out it, there is no en­ergy se­cu­rity and, of course, no food se­cu­rity."

Kung Pao Potato

Agri­cul­ture ac­counts for be­tween 65 and 70 per­cent of China's wa­ter use and vast amounts are wasted by in­ef­fi­cient ir­ri­ga­tion.

This is es­pe­cially true in north­ern re­gions that, de­spite be­ing some of the most arid in the coun­try, are the pro­duc­tion fo­cus for wa­ter­hun­gry crops like corn and wheat.

"They even grow corn in In­ner Mon­go­lia, which is in­cred­i­bly dry," said Li Lifeng, direc­tor of the WWF In­ter­na­tional Fresh­wa­ter Pro­gramme.

"I re­cently talked to a farmer there who had been grow­ing corn for just three years," Li said in Daegu. "His well started off 3 me­ters ( 10 feet) deep, but now it al­ready goes down 50 me­ters."

Ef­forts to change the crop mix have in­cluded a re­cent cam­paign to pro­mote the har­vest­ing of pota­toes, which re­quire far less wa­ter.

Given the tra­di­tional taste pref­er­ence for rice and wheat, the state broad­caster CCTV has tried to prod things along by pub­lish­ing recipes on its Weibo ac­count, in­clud­ing one for Kung Pao potato.

North­ern China's thirst for wa­ter — the coal in­dus­try is cen­tered there as well — extends to its rapidly grow­ing and in­creas­ingly af­flu­ent ur­ban pop­u­la­tions.

The need to meet the ris­ing de­mand from th­ese cities re­sulted in one of the world's most am­bi­tious en­gi­neer­ing projects, with an over­all es­ti­mated cost of more than US$80 bil­lion.

The cen­tral phase of the mas­sive South-North Di­ver­sion Project opened in De­cem­ber, as wa­ter be­gan flow­ing to Bei­jing through more than 1,200 kilo­me­ters ( 745 miles) of chan­nels and pipes — the dis­tance from Lon­don to Madrid.

But ex­perts stress that China can­not sim­ply en­gi­neer its way out of its wa­ter cri­sis with head­line mega-projects that will never be big enough to keep pace with in-

creas­ing de­mand.

'Good wa­ter af­ter bad'

A study pub­lished in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Academy of Sciences jour­nal in Jan­uary warned that large- scale wa­ter trans­fers would ac­tu­ally ex­ac­er­bate prob­lems in the long-run.

"China needs to shift its fo­cus to wa­ter de­mand man­age­ment in­stead of a sup­ply-ori­ented ap­proach," said the study's coau­thor, Dabo Guan, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of East Anglia.

"The cur­rent trans­fer pro­gram is pour­ing good wa­ter af­ter bad: the prob­lems of wa­ter-stressed re­gions aren't be­ing al­le­vi­ated and the prov­inces shar­ing their wa­ter are suf­fer­ing greatly," Guan said.

Years of de­clin­ing rain­fall in south­ern China means it now reg­u­larly sees droughts of its own.

China is in fact im­ple­ment­ing an ex­tremely am­bi­tious wa­ter man­age­ment strat­egy, al­beit one that risks be­ing un­der­mined by in­ter­de­part­men­tal ri­val­ries, cor­rup­tion and in­cen­tives that fa­vor eco­nomic devel­op­ment over sus­tain­able re­source use.

In 2011, it is­sued its "three red lines" pol­icy es­tab­lish­ing strict lim­its on wa­ter quan­tity us­age, ef­fi­ciency and qual­ity, while this year a new En­vi­ron­ment Law came into force with harsh fines for pol­luters.

State me­dia re­ported last year that 60 per­cent of China's ground­wa­ter and more than half its ma­jor fresh­wa­ter lakes were pol­luted.

"Be­fore, there wasn't much of a stick for pun­ish­ing wastage and pol­lut­ing," said CWR's Tan. "Now there are strict stan­dards and a very big stick."

Hav­ing ex­per­i­mented with charg­ing ur­ban res­i­dents for wa­ter in or­der to en­cour­age con­ser­va­tion, the gov­ern­ment is re­port­edly set to roll out a tiered pric­ing sys­tem for res­i­den­tial users in all cities and some towns na­tion­wide later this year.


This file pic­ture taken on Feb. 22, 2011 shows Chi­nese farm­ers pre­par­ing to pump wa­ter from a dry­ing up reser­voir at a well in eastern China, where a record drought threat­ens to push global food prices up.

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