By Vincent Gauci.
The average Chinese citizen has approx. 200m3 of renewable water per year at his/her disposal. This must be seen in the light of the World Bank benchmark of 1000m3 per citizen per year, below which the country is considered as water-stressed.
The main water consumers in China are: agriculture (65%), industry (23%) and households (12%).
There is a huge difference between the south of the country, with more than 2000mm of annual rainfall, and the north, with less than 200mm. There are also huge differences between the water demand of various sectors of the Chinese communities, with the demand in cities being many times that of a similar population in the countryside.
In the last 30 years, there was widespread urbanisation, with millions of
people leaving the countryside and establishing themselves in the mega-cities: Beijing, Shanghai and others. This, together with the rapid industrialisation, the increased affluence of the population, and some bad policy decisions, has incremented water demand many-fold. Water has traditionally been heavily subsidised in China, and this has encouraged its unrestricted use and misuse. Extracton and processing of coal, the predominant energy source in China, also exerts a heavy demand on water resources.
Initially, it was the 50 000-odd rivers that paid the price. Over- abstraction from these rivers resulted in the drying up of over 25 000 of these rivers.
Then, the Chinese turned their attention to groundwater. Groundwater was exploited and over-expoited. Drastic lowering of water levels in wells and land subsidence, were the inevitable outcomes. To make matters worse, insufficient regulation resulted in the discharge of huge volumes of untreated wastewater from domestic and industrial sources, as well as contaminated runoff from agricultural areas directly into the depleted rivers.
For some time the water situation, although amply reported in sections of the press, remained low down in the priority list of the Chinese authorities. They preferred to strive for an ever-increasing economy, with the result that the water situation reached crisis proportions. Serious health effects were reported among the communities that thrived close to the banks of rivers draining industrial sites. Some 400 cities, mainly in the North of the country, are now facing water cuts and poor quality tap water. Disagreement has been registered between sectors with different interests within the Chinese society: basically on who and how much should a particular sector get of the essential but dwindling resource. The situation is undoubtedly serious, especially when one considers that Climate Change predictions are not at all promising for China’s water situation.
Inevitably, in the course of the last 5 years or so, the issue has risen considerably in the Chinese priority list. The matter has been openly recognised as a serious threat, not only to the water industry itself, but also to the entire Chinese economy. A water management plan was adopted in 2011 where targets were established and a number of measures and deadlines established. Some of these measures have already been put into place, eg. instilling greater awareness in the population about water use by, among others paying a higher price for the commodity. Thousands of rainwater cisterns were built, and regulations have been brought into place for greater efficiency in the use of water in industry, for the adoption of the polluter-pays principle and for the treatment of wastewater prior to discharge. For the latter, thousands of treatment plants have been built and brought into operation.
The expensive and highly controvercial South-North Water Diversion Project, which has been called re-plumbing the country has been decades in the making. This project is of truly colossal proportions and involves damming of many large rivers and 3000km of canals and tunnels through planes and mountains by means of which 45 billion m3 of water will be deviated from the rivers in the south of the country to supply the parched North, at a staggering cost of €60 billion.
But this is just the financial cost. The environmental and social costs will also be enormous. More than 300 000 people will need to be relocated. Many endemic species, such as the Chinese alligator, native only to the swamps and marshes of eastern China, will seriously risk extinction. As if the above-mentioned disbenefits were not enough, the project also risks fomenting trouble between China and its neighbours. In fact, some of the rivers intended to be deviated, currently supply Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, India, Thailand and Bangladesh with water.
Project critics say that the water crisis in China will not be solved by grandiose engineering projects but by greater efforts at awareness raising in water use among the different sectors of the Chinese society, higher efficiency in water use, more rain-water harvesting, enforcement of regulations and appropriate demand management. In any case, the South-North Water Diversion Project when completed, will only supply a relatively small fraction of the current water demand in the North of the country.
The debate continues.