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China: A National Water Emergency


China faces some of the most serious water issues on the planet. The problems stem from explosive population growth and an inadequate water supply, which has pitted demand for clean drinking water against the demand for industry and agriculture. So in China, drought and pollution combine to make devastating water problems. To put the problem in context, the country has 20% of the world’s population with less than 8% of its water; in other words, the Chinese per-capita water supply is a quarter of the world average. Half of China’s large cities, including Beijing, face a water shortage.

Map showing division of China into halves based on precipitation. Northern half of the country arid and southern half is wet.
Map showing division of China into halves based on precipitation. The northern half of the country is arid and southern half is wet

Superimposed on the overall shortage is a significant disparity in supply with the northern tier of China being significantly more arid and the southern tier being significantly more moist. Just under 50 percent of the population of China lives in the northern tier, and close to 60 percent of cultivated land is also in this area, yet only 14 percent of the country's total water resources are found in the region. Production of grain has gradually shifted from the south of China to the north, exacerbating this problem. As a result, the water table is dropping by 1.5 meters per year in parts of the northern portion of the country.

In all, explosive population growth and rapid industrialization have fueled the demand for water nationwide over the last sixty years with the construction of more than 86,000 reservoirs, drilling of more than four million wells, and development of 580,000 square kilometers of irrigated land that generates 70% of the country's total grain production. Generally, lax Chinese environmental controls have led to some of the worst water quality in the world with widespread pollution. Factories are very often situated on river banks for water supply, yet a shortage of water treatment plants results in about 80% of wastewater bring discharged untreated back into the same rivers it came from, and about 75% of rivers are polluted. Worse, approximately 90% of groundwater in urban areas is polluted. Unfortunately, farmers have no choice but to use contaminated water for their crops. And an estimated 700 million people drink contaminated water every day. In some parts of the country, high incidences of digestive cancers (stomach, esophagus, intestine) have been tied to water pollution.

Examples of Pollution in China

Men in boats in a heavily polluted river in China Pollution along the Yellow River A man standing on a boat in a lake full of trash.

Click the images above to see full versions and complete source information.

China's cancer village: a product of industrial pollution

Click on the link above to watch the movie.

Construction of the largest aqueduct in China to move water from the south to the north of the country.
Construction of the largest aqueduct in China to move water from the south to the north of the country.
Credit: Ian Riley (All rights are reserved.)

Mismanagement of water resources is commonplace. Diversion of rivers for industrial purposes and irrigation has caused water shortages in areas that once had a steady water supply. The Yellow River, once a sizeable waterway and source of water for agriculture, has been diverted for irrigation and dries up for increasing portions of the year, in 2010 for more than 200 days. As in many parts of the world, industrial demand for water has trumped demand for agriculture. Even when water remains for agriculture, a large amount is wasted through evaporation. The total lost from canals and irrigation systems is 60-80% of the supply.

This is summarized in the video Yellow River Drying Up in China. Click to watch it.

The following video discusses the water pollution problem in China. Watch the first 10 minutes or so.

Video: China: Shifting Nature (59:03)

Link to video on YouTube

Map showing location of aqueducts designed to move water from south to north China
Map showing the location of aqueducts designed to move water from south to north China.
Credit: New York Times, All Rights Reserved.

Water shortage presents a major obstacle to growth in China, moreover, pollution is a potential environmental catastrophe. To increase the supply of water to areas in the north of the country, China has developed one of the largest public works projects in the world, the South-North Water Diversion Project. This program is designed to divert water from the Yangtze River in the middle of China to rivers in the northern part of the country. Three major routes are being considered for this project, each consisting of tunnels, canals, and dams. However, the project is extremely expensive and its success is not completely ensured, thus plans remain in limbo. In the meantime, the Chinese government pledged $600 million in 2009 to improve water management and combat contamination problems.

You are certain to hear a lot more in the future about continued attempts to provide safe water for Chinese population and agriculture, especially in the light of climate change.

Check Your Understanding

Drought question:

Which of the following is a problem for water in China?

A. Pollution in streams and rivers
B. The populated northern tier of China is arid
C. Mismanagement
D. All of the above are problems

Click for answer.

D. Pollution in streams and rivers, the populated northern tier is arid, and mismanagement are all problems in China