hoangkybactien’s note 1: Baotou area holds the largest rare earth materials and mining in China and in the world. If Saudi Arabia produces most oil in the world, then Baotou produces most rare earth materials in the world. Baotou is located in Inner Mongolia Autonomous region, few hundreds kilometers north of China’s great wall (ancient border between Mongolia and Old China)
Note 2: Beginning in 1972, the water from the Yellow river rarely reaches the ocean in Bohai bay. On average, the Yellow river runs dried 200 days a year.
A dried river near Beijing 2007
The Yellow River polluted!
Drinking water shortage at the Yellow river! (part 1/2)
Drinking water shortage at the Yellow river! (part 2/2)
A new water strategy from the Chinese government is a step in the right direction, says Chaoqing Yu. But it will be difficult to put into practice.
Late last month, the Chinese government announced that it will invest four trillion renminbi (US$600 billion) over the next ten years to protect and improve access to water. The policy was spelt out in this year’s No 1 Document — the central government’s first policy document of the year, setting the top priorities — released on 29 January, and comes as a severe and continuing drought in northern China threatens crops of winter wheat.
The Chinese government is right to highlight sustainable use of water resources as critical for China’s food, economic, ecological and even national security. Among the measures it proposes are control of total water consumption, improved irrigation efficiency, restricted groundwater pumping, reduced water pollution and guaranteed funds for water-conservancy projects. Such a national policy could go a long way to help secure and protect China’s water. How to put the policy into practice, however, remains challenging.
Since the 1950s, China has constructed 86,000 reservoirs, drilled more than four million wells, and developed 58 million hectares of irrigated land, which generates 70% of the country’s total grain production. Efforts to conserve water have lagged far behind. The largest threat to sustainable water supplies in China is a growing geographical mismatch between agricultural development and water resources. The centre of grain production in China has moved from the humid south to the water-scarce north over the past 30 years, as southern cropland is built on and more land is irrigated further north. As the north has become drier, increased food production there has largely relied on unsustainable overuse of local water resources, especially groundwater. Wasteful irrigation infrastructure, poorly managed water use, as well as fast industrialization and urbanization, have led to serious depletion of groundwater aquifers, loss of natural habitats and water pollution.
To tackle water issues in China, one problem that must be addressed is the scattering of authority across different agencies. At present, major rivers are managed by the Ministry of Water Resources, whereas local governments control smaller water courses. Water supply, farmland irrigation, groundwater, water pollution and weather forecasting are separately administrated by, respectively, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Land and Resources, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, and the State Meteorological Administration.
“China needs to build an integrated network to monitor surface and groundwater.”
Data on precipitation, river runoff, groundwater, land use, pollution and water use are not shared between governmental agencies, or made accessible to the public. It will be difficult to implement the holistic policy laid out in the No 1 Document without breaking down these bureaucratic barriers.
As a starting point, China needs to build an integrated network to monitor surface and groundwater, and use it to assess and set water policies through an integrated water-resource management system. And for this to happen, China needs a law that sets out clear policies on data sharing, and penalties for those who do not comply.
Other legislation is needed too. A water law introduced in 1988, and amended in 2002, is too vague to apply in practice, and there remains confusion over water rights of individuals, such as whether to grant them based on land ownership or use.
As political attention to water increases, a new, fair water law, based on transparent decisions, is essential to protect citizens’ rights and prevent corruption. Low-income farmers will suffer greatly if water prices rise. To protect them, and so food supplies, China must keep irrigation costs low. Clear measures will also be needed to better match food production with water availability. Without regulation to increase food production in the south, it will be difficult to maintain food security, even if water-use efficiency is improved in the north.
Some of the areas identified in the document need more attention. Despite increasing concern about the effects of climate change on the availability and suitability of water resources, the document does not specifically define adaption to climate impacts. It is also vague on how the departments of water resources and environment protection should cooperate on planned new limits on water pollutants. Ecological water use is mentioned, but the document does not outline the specific measures that will be needed to protect the water supply of ecosystems against conflicting demands of economic activity. The role of ecosystems in water availability must be explicitly accounted for.
How will the money be raised to deliver the government’s promises on water? The document demands that local governments reserve 10% of the annual income (currently 70 billion renminbi) from land sales for real-estate development to be used for water projects. However, it is not clear whether this money would be better held by local governments or allocated by Beijing.
The current drought shows how urgent the problem of sustainable water use and supply is for China. Although many of the policies and measures in the No 1 Document are not new and still need more work, the high priority the government has placed on sustainable water use is extremely welcome.
Chaoqing Yu is associate professor in the Center for Earth System Science and the Institute for Global Change Studies, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China. Colleagues Peng Gong and Yongyuan Yin also contributed. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Drinking Water shortages reach crisis levels in China
China can’t dam or divert water quickly enough to keep up with its thirsty population, and the shortage has reached crisis levels in Beijing and other areas.
In northern China this month, farm fields have developed cracks up to 10 meters (32.8 feet) deep. Farmers in Chifeng city have had to delay harvests to avoid injury, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported. According to the Chifeng’s hydrological bureau, 62 percent of the city’s 51 reservoirs have run dry, Xinhua said. More than 250,000 people are short on drinking water.
Beneath Booming Cities, China’s Future Is Drying Up
by Jake Hooker, NY Times
SHIJIAZHUANG, China — Hundreds of feet below ground, the primary water source for this provincial capital of more than two million people is steadily running dry. The underground water table is sinking about four feet a year. Municipal wells have already drained two-thirds of the local groundwater.
Above ground, this city in the North China Plain is having a party. Economic growth topped 11 percent last year. Population is rising. A new upscale housing development is advertising waterfront property on lakes filled with pumped groundwater. Another half-built complex, the Arc de Royal, is rising above one of the lowest points in the city’s water table.
“People who are buying apartments aren’t thinking about whether there will be water in the future,” said Zhang Zhongmin, who has tried for 20 years to raise public awareness about the city’s dire water situation.
For three decades, water has been indispensable in sustaining the rollicking economic expansion that has made China a world power. Now, China’s galloping, often wasteful style of economic growth is pushing the country toward a water crisis. Water pollution is rampant nationwide, while water scarcity has worsened severely in north China — even as demand keeps rising everywhere.
China is scouring the world for oil, natural gas and minerals to keep its economic machine humming. But trade deals cannot solve water problems. Water usage in China has quintupled since 1949, and leaders will increasingly face tough political choices as cities, industry and farming compete for a finite and unbalanced water supply.
One example is grain. The Communist Party, leery of depending on imports to feed the country, has long insisted on grain self-sufficiency. But growing so much grain consumes huge amounts of underground water in the North China Plain, which produces half the country’s wheat. Some scientists say farming in the rapidly urbanizing region should be restricted to protect endangered aquifers. Yet doing so could threaten the livelihoods of millions of farmers and cause a spike in international grain prices.
For the Communist Party, the immediate challenge is the prosaic task of forcing the world’s most dynamic economy to conserve and protect clean water. Water pollution is so widespread that regulators say a major incident occurs every other day. Municipal and industrial dumping has left sections of many rivers “unfit for human contact.”
Cities like Beijing and Tianjin have shown progress on water conservation, but China’s economy continues to emphasize growth. Industry in China uses 3 to 10 times more water, depending on the product, than industries in developed nations.
“We have to now focus on conservation,” said Ma Jun, a prominent environmentalist. “We don’t have much extra water resources. We have the same resources and much bigger pressures from growth.”
In the past, the Communist Party has reflexively turned to engineering projects to address water problems, and now it is reaching back to one of Mao’s unrealized plans: the $62 billion South-to-North Water Transfer Project to funnel more than 12 trillion gallons northward every year along three routes from the Yangtze River basin, where water is more abundant. The project, if fully built, would be completed in 2050. The eastern and central lines are already under construction; the western line, the most disputed because of environmental concerns, remains in the planning stages.
The North China Plain undoubtedly needs any water it can get. An economic powerhouse with more than 200 million people, it has limited rainfall and depends on groundwater for 60 percent of its supply. Other countries, like Yemen, India, Mexico and the United States, have aquifers that are being drained to dangerously low levels. But scientists say those below the North China Plain may be drained within 30 years.
“There’s no uncertainty,” said Richard Evans, a hydrologist who has worked in China for two decades and has served as a consultant to the World Bank and China’s Ministry of Water Resources. “The rate of decline is very clear, very well documented. They will run out of groundwater if the current rate continues.”
Outside Shijiazhuang, construction crews are working on the transfer project’s central line, which will provide the city with infusions of water on the way to the final destination, Beijing. For many of the engineers and workers, the job carries a patriotic gloss.
Yet while many scientists agree that the project will provide an important influx of water, they also say it will not be a cure-all. No one knows how much clean water the project will deliver; pollution problems are already arising on the eastern line. Cities and industry will be the beneficiaries of the new water, but the impact on farming is limited. Water deficits are expected to remain.
“Many people are asking the question: What can they do?” said Zheng Chunmiao, a leading international groundwater expert. “They just cannot continue with current practices. They have to find a way to bring the problem under control.”
A Drying Region
On a drizzly, polluted morning last April, Wang Baosheng steered his Chinese-made sport utility vehicle out of a shopping center on the west side of Beijing for a three-hour southbound commute that became a tour of the water crisis on the North China Plain.
Mr. Wang travels several times a month to Shijiazhuang, where he is chief engineer overseeing construction of three miles of the central line of the water transfer project. A light rain splattered the windshield, and he recited a Chinese proverb
about the preciousness of spring showers for farmers. He also noticed one dead river after another as his S.U.V. glided over dusty, barren riverbeds: the Yongding, the Yishui, the Xia and, finally, the Hutuo. “You see all these streams with bridges, but there is no water,” he said.
A century or so ago, the North China Plain was a healthy ecosystem, scientists say. Farmers digging wells could strike water within eight feet. Streams and creeks meandered through the region. Swamps, natural springs and wetlands were common.
Today, the region, comparable in size to New Mexico, is parched. Roughly five-sixths of the wetlands have dried up, according to one study. Scientists say that most natural streams or creeks have disappeared. Several rivers that once were navigable are now mostly dust and brush. The largest natural freshwater lake in northern China, Lake Baiyangdian, is steadily contracting and besieged with pollution.
What happened? The list includes misguided policies, unintended consequences, a population explosion, climate change and, most of all, relentless economic growth. In 1963, a flood paralyzed the region, prompting Mao to construct a flood-control system of dams, reservoirs and concrete spillways. Flood control improved but the ecological balance was altered as the dams began choking off rivers that once flowed eastward into the North China Plain.
The new reservoirs gradually became major water suppliers for growing cities like Shijiazhuang. Farmers, the region’s biggest water users, began depending almost exclusively on wells. Rainfall steadily declined in what some scientists now believe is a consequence of climate change.
Before, farmers had compensated for the region’s limited annual rainfall by planting only three crops every two years. But underground water seemed limitless and government policies pushed for higher production, so farmers began planting a second annual crop, usually winter wheat, which requires a lot of water.
By the 1970s, studies show, the water table was already falling. Then Mao’s death and the introduction of market-driven economic reforms spurred a farming renaissance. Production soared, and rural incomes rose. The water table kept falling, further drying out wetlands and rivers.
Around 1900, Shijiazhuang was a collection of farming villages. By 1950, the population had reached 335,000. This year, the city has roughly 2.3 million people with a metropolitan area population of 9 million.
More people meant more demand for water, and the city now heavily pumps groundwater. The water table is falling more than a meter a year. Today, some city wells must descend more than 600 feet to reach clean water. In the deepest drilling areas, steep downward funnels have formed in the water table that are known as “cones of depression.”
Groundwater quality also has worsened. Wastewater, often untreated, is now routinely dumped into rivers and open channels. Mr. Zheng, the water specialist, said studies showed that roughly three-quarters of the region’s entire aquifer system was now suffering some level of contamination.
“There will be no sustainable development in the future if there is no groundwater supply,” said Liu Changming, a leading Chinese hydrology expert and a senior scholar at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
A National Project
Three decades ago, when Deng Xiaoping shifted China from Maoist ideology and fixated the country on economic growth, a generation of technocrats gradually took power and began rebuilding a country that ideology had almost destroyed. Today, the top leaders of the Communist Party — including Hu Jintao, China’s president and party chief — were trained as engineers.
Though not members of the political elite, Wang Baosheng, the engineer on the water transfer project, and his colleague Yang Guangjie are of the same background. This spring, at the site outside Shijiazhuang, bulldozers clawed at a V-shaped cut in the dirt while teams of workers in blue jumpsuits and orange hard hats smoothed wet cement over a channel that will be almost as wide as a football field.
“I’ve been to the Hoover Dam, and I really admire the people who built that,” said Mr. Yang, the project manager. “At the time, they were making a huge contribution to the development of their country.”
He compared China’s transfer project to the water diversion system devised for southern California in the last century. “Maybe we are like America in the 1920s and 1930s,” he said. “We’re building the country.”
China’s disadvantage, compared with the United States, is that it has a smaller water supply yet almost five times as many people. China has about 7 percent of the world’s water resources and roughly 20 percent of its population. It also has a severe regional water imbalance, with about four-fifths of the water supply in the south.
Mao’s vision of borrowing water from the Yangtze for the north had an almost profound simplicity, but engineers and scientists spent decades debating the project before the government approved it, partly out of desperation, in 2002. Today, demand is far greater in the north, and water quality has badly deteriorated in the south. Roughly 41 percent of China’s wastewater is now dumped in the Yangtze, raising concerns that siphoning away clean water northward will exacerbate pollution problems in the south.
The upper reaches of the central line are expected to be finished in time to provide water to Beijing for the Olympic Games next year. Mr. Evans, the World Bank consultant, called the complete project “essential” but added that success would depend on avoiding waste and efficiently distributing the water.
Mr. Liu, the scholar and hydrologist, said that farming would get none of the new water and that cities and industry must quickly improve wastewater treatment. Otherwise, he said, cities will use the new water to dump more polluted wastewater. Shijiazhuang now dumps untreated wastewater into a canal that local farmers use to irrigate fields.
For years, Chinese officials thought irrigation efficiency was the answer for reversing groundwater declines. Eloise Kendy, a hydrology expert with The Nature Conservancy who has studied the North China Plain, said that farmers had made improvements but that the water table had kept sinking. Ms. Kendy said the spilled water previously considered “wasted” had actually soaked into the soil and recharged the aquifer. Efficiency erased that recharge. Farmers also used efficiency gains to irrigate more land.
Ms. Kendy said scientists had discovered that the water table was dropping because of water lost by evaporation and transpiration from the soil, plants and leaves. This lost water is a major reason the water table keeps dropping, scientists say.
Farmers have no choice. They drill deeper.
Difficult Choices Ahead
For many people living in the North China Plain, the notion of a water crisis seems distant. No one is crawling across a parched desert in search of an oasis. But every year, the water table keeps dropping. Nationally, groundwater usage has almost doubled since 1970 and now accounts for one-fifth of the country’s total water usage, according to the China Geological Survey Bureau.
The Communist Party is fully aware of the problems. A new water pollution law is under consideration that would sharply increase fines against polluters. Different coastal cities are building desalination plants. Multinational waste treatment companies are being recruited to help tackle the enormous wastewater problem.
Many scientists believe that huge gains can still be reaped by better efficiency and conservation. In north China, pilot projects are under way to try to reduce water loss from winter wheat crops. Some cities have raised the price of water to promote conservation, but it remains subsidized in most places. Already, some cities along the route of the transfer project are recoiling because of the planned higher prices. Some say they may just continue pumping.
Tough political choices, though, seem unavoidable. Studies by different scientists have concluded that the rising water demands in the North China Plain make it unfeasible for farmers to continue planting a winter crop. The international ramifications would be significant if China became an ever bigger customer on world grain markets. Some analysts have long warned that grain prices could steadily rise, contributing to inflation and making it harder for other developing countries to buy food.
The social implications would also be significant inside China. Near Shijiazhuang, Wang Jingyan’s farming village depends on wells that are more than 600 feet deep. Not planting winter wheat would amount to economic suicide.
“We would lose 60 percent or 70 percent of our income if we didn’t plant winter wheat,” Mr. Wang said. “Everyone here plants winter wheat.”
Another water proposal is also radical: huge, rapid urbanization. Scientists say converting farmland into urban areas would save enough water to stop the drop in the water table, if not reverse it, because widespread farming still uses more water than urban areas. Of course, large-scale urbanization, already under way, could worsen air quality; Shijiazhuang’s air already ranks among the worst in China because of heavy industrial pollution.
For now, Shijiazhuang’s priority, like that of other major Chinese cities, is to grow as quickly as possible. The city’s gross domestic product has risen by an average of 10 percent every year since 1980, even as the city’s per capita rate of available water is now only one thirty-third of the world average.
“We have a water shortage, but we have to develop,” said Wang Yongli, a senior engineer with the city’s water conservation bureau. “And development is going to be put first.”
Mr. Wang has spent four decades charting the steady extinction of the North China Plain’s aquifer. Water in Shijiazhuang, with more than 800 illegal wells, is as scarce as it is in Israel, he said. “In Israel, people regard water as more important than life itself,” he said. “In Shijiazhuang, it’s not that way. People are focused on the economy.”