Last week China’s Ministry of Land and Resources released a new report (pdf) on how much of the country’s groundwater was too dangerous to even touch in 2014: 61.5%. That is as bad as it sounds—in fact it’s an all-time high, an increase of 1.9% from the year before. Yet, broadly speaking, China has more than enough water at the national level. In 2013, total water resources stood at 2.7 trillion cubic meters, while consumption was 618 billion cubic meters, according to the China Water Resources Bulletin for that year (doc).
The outlook gets a whole lot drier if you dip below the headline figure.
Nationally, per capita water resources were about 2,072 cubic meters by the World Bank’s calculations, only 34% of the world average. Inefficient irrigation in the parched northern regions wastes almost half the water used on crops there, while nearly 93% of power generation in China requires water on a daily basis. In eleven provinces and municipalities – including Beijing – per capita renewable water resources fall below the World Bank’s poverty mark of 1,000 square meters, on par with many countries in the Middle East, according to the Hong Kong-based nonprofit China Water Risk. Those provinces also account for four of the top five in terms of agricultural output, are responsible for 45% of gross domestic product and are home to 510 million people.
Recent policy announcements like potentially landmark Water Action Plan made public on April 16 show that China’s leaders recognize the need to rein in water consumption and pollution in the key areas of agriculture and industry. Savings in just one of these areas will not be enough, and currently despoiled water resources will need time to recover; opportunities to conserve water must also be balanced against possible resulting pollution and climate-warming CO2 releases that could exacerbate water sources’ unreliability. If coordinated conservation policies that balance food and energy security are not deployed, it will be hard to avoid further expansion of the already over-budget, much-criticized and possibly unsustainable South-North Water Diversion Project into China’s western territories.
“If you go for aggressive water savings in both [energy and agriculture], which is actually better for you in the long term, you don’t then need to build the western route,” said Debra Tan, director of China Water Risk. But, “if you don’t do both you probably will have to supplement with water from the South.”
Farming is a greater drain on China’s water resources than any other sector, accounting for 63.4% of total water used in 2013, according to that year’s Water Resources Bulletin. Although China’s North accounts for 63% of China’s farmland and acts as the breadbasket bastion of the country’s continued self-sufficiency in grains, the region has only 25% of China’s total renewable water resources according to figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
China’s agricultural sector is actually somewhat less thirsty proportionally than many other developing nations, where agricultural water use averages around 70% of consumption. But pollution has intensified scarcity further, particularly in the north, where irrigation relies more extensively on groundwater. A 2013 survey from the Ministry of Land Resources found more than 70% of groundwater in the North China Plain unfit for human contact; in 2014 a joint report with the environmental ministry also revealed that one fifth of China’s arable land – much of which is located in the North China Plain – is polluted.
Rising frequency of droughts ensures that even what usable water remains is not guaranteed. A 2013 study of nation-wide precipitation and air temperature values in the International Journal of Climatology found that not only had North China seen an increase in droughts between 1951 and 2010, but that severe and extreme droughts had proliferated throughout all the country’s northern regions since the late 1990s. North China was also among the regions of the country that had seen its longest drought on-record within the last two decades.
These droughts have yet to curtail rising grain yields. A recent analysis of agricultural irrigation in China published in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation found that grain crop production rose five-fold from 1949 to 2011, with the total area effectively irrigated in the country growing threefold to 111 million acres for the same period. That expansion was accompanied by a fourfold increase in water consumption to nearly 370 billion square meters which, while having mostly leveled off during the 1990s, is still rising slowly. The net water loss has been tremendous, with irrigation use lowering the groundwater level of the North China Plain by nearly 2/3 since the 1970s.
The authors of the paper finger inefficient irrigation as the main culprit, noting water waste in agriculture is “still extremely high and calls for urgent reduction.” The predominant method used to water crops in China is flood irrigation, in which water is pumped to fields and allowed to simply flow along the ground to crops. The method is simple, cheap and wastes about half of the water being used, according to a US Geological Survey estimate.
That lines up with researchers’ findings that the water use efficiency of Chinese irrigation was about 47%. Larger outfits also suffer from poorly maintained infrastructure, as more than four in five of China’s medium and large-scale irrigation facilities have been operating for over 30 years without much upkeep to prevent leaks and other issues.
The upswing of all this excess is that there is likely enough slack in China’s agricultural water use that it is still possible to save a substantial amount through better irrigation practices and other improvements. That water can be used elsewhere while still growing the same amount of food, provided farming scales up to become more efficient and minor import growth is allowed for some grains.
think you can actually maintain self-sufficiency and water supplies if you just manage it well,” Tan said, “though what you may have to give up on is meat production.” That would no doubt upset rapidly growing domestic hog farming outfits, which supply most of the rapidly rising domestic demand for meat. But recent signs do point to preparations being made at China’s ports for more pig imports.
Beijing’s decision to end restrictions on soybean imports in the 90’s as China applied for WTO accession may have been of particular benefit, based on a 2014 paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (pdf). Researchers found that compared with other key crops such as wheat, corn and rice, soybeans required far more water. With both corn and soybeans being key feed grains, China might also be able to offload more of those crops’ water costs if it allowed more imports of pork and other livestock.
At last count industry was the second-largest water-consuming sector of water in China at 23% of the total used annually in 2013. Xiaotian Fu, associate with the China Water Program at the World Resources Institute, said the power sector was the largest consumer of water within industry according to the institute’s research, in addition to being the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions; both the upstream (exploration and production) and downstream (processing and purifying) coal sectors are among the most water-intensive.
“To help alleviate water stress in China, lower-cost, and more environmentally sustainable water sources – such as water efficiency investments and wastewater re-use – should be thoroughly investigated first and prioritized in China’s water resources planning,” she said. For cities, Fu said water efficient investment and use of non-conventional water resources are efficient measures to ensure sustainable development. A broader challenge will be continuing to develop while keeping the lights on as more of the population hooks up to a grid that is also overwhelmingly water-dependent.
92.7% of China’s installed power capacity relies on water to generate electricity, with 70.4% from thermal power and 22.3% from hydropower. The latter’s portion of the power supply has grown considerably in recent decades, but the resulting reservoirs are also used in water for irrigation, managing water flow control and other ends. Climate change could undermine river flows needed for dependable power as droughts proliferate, possibly prompting further tapping of trans-boundary rivers that have provoked controversy with many of China’s neighbors.
As things are, seasonal variations in river flow mean that hydropower generation fluctuates, requiring coal to step in and smooth things out. Power generation in China is largely dominated by coal-fired electricity, and coal-related industries alone using more than half of all industrial water usage according to estimates from China Water Risk.
Although last year saw a fall in consumption and output prompting some to proclaim China had hit peak coal, this landmark was illusory, as consumption is still set to rise in absolute terms for the foreseeable future even as coal’s portion of the country’s energy mix shrinks. This continuing reliance on coal-fired thermal power makes increased efficiency and water use control crucial for China’s energy security even if agricultural consumption is brought down through gains in efficiency. Many of its key coal resources are situated in water-scarce provinces, many of those in the North where groundwater is the only viable option.
Atomic energy might eventually prove a viable alternative to carbon-intensive coal, but nuclear power plants actually require much more water than coal-fired plants to run safely, and all of China’s existing atomic energy installations are on the coast, where there is plenty of seawater. While some plants are planned further inland, those would fall in the Yangtze river basin, home to 400 million people and a major supplier of water-dependent rice and wheat. In its latest report China Water Risk suggests delaying such expansion until China’s pollution controls are more reliably enforced.
Quick growth, slow cleanup
Water pollution remains a serious issue that requires substantial investment to recover from. Ma Jong, dean of the College of Environmental Sciences at Renmin University in Beijing has warned that investing RMB1 trillion “may help Beijing bring back blue skies, but perhaps even RMB5 trillion will not necessarily deliver the promise of cleaning up China’s water resources.”
Among the more positive developments this year for water resources has been the National Development and Reform Commission’s announcement of new water pollution policies that specifically target paper mills, chemical plants and textile factories. The outsize amount of waste discharged by these industries has made them an obvious target for policymakers. But while this aspect has received the most attention, Tan said the plan went beyond that.
“It’s not just one policy, it’s a policy that ties together many other policies, and uses many instruments from other policies,” she said. Indeed, the new plan is almost startlingly specific for a policy decree from the powerful State Council. Most national or regional government policy in mainland China is left intentionally vague, allowing it to echo down through the lower halls of officialdom sounding a slightly different tune in every cadre’s ear. While this encourages a more organic policy implementation process, it also allows local governments to more easily circumvent inconvenient demands from Beijing.
The new plan seems to leave no such loopholes, introducing 26 specific requirements for improvement and 238 mandatory measures, with each one accompanied by a list of responsible ministries. “We’re going to see this kind of cohesive policy setting going forward,” in which the ministries responsible for dealing with a certain type of pollution are clearly delineated and required to work together with other ministries with different jurisdictions under certain conditions, Tan said.
That includes working toward lower carbon dioxide emissions in order to prevent climactic catastrophe that would further strain China’s water resources as glacial headwaters in the Tibetan highlands melt away. It is also tempting to assume that government-backed growth of low-pollution, low-carbon energy and water conservation are mutually beneficial, but this is not always the case.
As Tan’s organization recently reported, while wind and photovoltaic power require little water to operate, concentrated solar power, bioenergy and geothermal require water for cooling. Both wind and solar equipment require water to produce steel components, and wind turbine production requires rare earth elements. According to the report, black market and bad practices in mining rare earth ore and producing elements “have raised serious concerns over soil and water contamination from untreated and illegally disch
arged toxic wastewater and radioactive waste.”
There and in similar contradictions lies the rub for China’s top leaders. Rules and regulations have gone on the books before looking nice, but implementation on the mainland has always been famously sporadic, and never before has such coordination been required. Beijing has rarely been under so much pressure to hold China’s ministries accountable for their duties. Now it must prove it has the strength of will to prevent a thirstier future still. ♦
Author: Hudson Lockett (@KangHexin)
Research: Nancy Gong, Georgie Barber
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