Is there a water crisis in China? Anyone who has traveled around the dustbowls of the northern provinces might believe the environmentalists’ warning that the country’s economic growth is literally in danger of drying up.
The facts are stark. Officially, China has 2,800 billion cubic meters of freshwater resources, which works out at just 2,300 cubic meters of water per head, a quarter of the world average. Deduct basic ecological demands and floodwater run-off and this sinks to well below the 1,000 cubic meters the UN uses to define a "water stressed" society.
Moreover, these limited resources are unevenly distributed: the subtropical south is home to around 80% of the total, while the semi-arid north – which has more farmland and mineral resources – is left high and dry. In the North China Plain, a vast swathe of land running from northern Jiangsu to Beijing and Hebei, per capita availability is just 305 cubic meters. Tianjin (160 cubic meters) has a lower per capita water resource than the semi-desert state of Jordan (179 cubic meters).
Every year an average of 15 million hectares of farmland suffer from drought and two-thirds of China’s 669 cities are water-short, creating a gap in urban supply of 40 billion cubic meters.
Much of this problem is man-made. Inefficient agricultural usage and industrial pollution are exacerbating natural water shortages in the arid north and creating scarcity in the wet south. Meanwhile, overuse of chemical fertilizers, mass industrialization and inadequate wastewater treatment mean that around 60% of monitored sections of China’s rivers and lakes are unsuitable for drinking or human contact, while up to 90% of shallow groundwater in cities is contaminated with organic and inorganic pollutants. This explains why many of China’s 400 water-scarce cities are located in the wet south.
What to do? Dismal scientists they may be, but some economists argue that things are not as bad as the environmentalists would have us believe.
This is largely because overall water demand has proved remarkably elastic. Over the past 10 years, China pulled off the amazing trick of making more from less: the economy barreled along with a fixed total supply of water. Increases in domestic and industrial use were compensated for by a decline in water going to agriculture – yet grain output held up, and water shortages have yet to take a severe macroeconomic toll.
Despite gloomy prophecies that China will run dry, solutions have always been found. And there is reason to believe that, with better regulation of water usage and productivity gains, new solutions will continue to be found.
Further efficiency gains can undoubtedly be made in agriculture, especially in the often aging large state-operated irrigation districts. Another economic solution is the idea of importing "virtual water" (i.e. thirsty goods such as grain and beef) from abroad or from wetter parts of the country.
But the best way of making more efficient use of a dwindling water resource is make users pay more for it, especially farmers. So far the government has shied away from stirring up this political hornets’ nest – but that final option remains.
It is too early to despair: China is not in Ozymandias territory yet.