"I searched for reasons — uncontrolled development is one — but the source, the plateaus, and mountain ranges are drying up. There is no water anymore." Zhang Junheng, Chinese conservationist.
China is the most populous nation on earth, with 1.426 billion: India is expected to snatch the crown this year with an estimated population of 1.417 billion. The climate is primarily dry, and wet monsoons lead to extreme summer and winter temperatures. The nation has also been desertifying despite attempts to plant trees as barriers. Though dust storms plague the north, their green belts have slowed sand storms.
The environment has been reeling from rapid industrialization resulting In extreme pollution and massive deterioration of the environment. China has started to correct some of the damage, but devastation continues unabated in most areas. Two large river fish that China spent decades attempting to save have recently been declared extinct despite those efforts.
China's industrialization was possible due to the abundance of natural resources. But that abundance is now a thing of the past. The ability to feed themselves as arable land is degraded and overused has become a significant challenge. But China's water situation is bleak due to climate change, toxic chemicals, and overuse. Chinese compose twenty percent of the world population but have only seven percent of the earth's water. Bloomberg noted that many regions (primarily the north) have water scarcity as intense as in the Middle East.
China has water shortages due to some inconvenient truths. Their water has been overused, polluted with deadly toxins, and large populations live in areas with water scarcity. Facts and Details noted that China uses 40 billion cubic meters of water annually. Water shortages are most acute in China's north, where 42 percent of the population resides. Massive urban areas such as Beijing and Tianjin also have water shortages. Over the past twenty years, China has lost 28,000 rivers and other surface water sources; they just vanished. The northern rivers have low flow or disappeared altogether.
Climate change plays a key role in the water shortage crisis in China. For thousands of years, civilisations along the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers fed on the glacial meltwater from the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau – also known as ‘The Third Pole’. Once a stable source of river flow, the ice mass is now less capable of supplying glacial melt with fresh snow and ice, since global warming has raised the temperature of the glacial region by 3- 3.5 degrees Celsius over the past half-century. A study by Greenpeace in 2018 revealed that 82% of China’s glaciers have retreated and more than one-fifth of the ice cover has disappeared since the 1950s. Consequently, glacial run-off into the Yangtze alone has been reduced by 13.9% since the 1990s, lessening freshwater availability. Greenpeace anticipates the shortage will become ‘dramatically’ acute when the glaciers reach their ‘peak water’- when the rate of water consumption surpasses water supply- which could happen as early as 2030.
Meanwhile, increasing temperatures have also changed atmospheric circulation. It has become more difficult for humid summer monsoons to reach northern and inland areas, resulting in more unreliable rainfall patterns. This abnormally dry weather has been experienced by Beijing in recent years: between October 2017 and February 2018, no precipitation, including rain and snow, was recorded in the metropolis. The 116-day drought is unprecedented in the country’s record.
The country’s uneven resource distribution further exacerbates the scarcity problem: 80% of water is concentrated in South China, but the North is the core of national development. For instance, President Xi Jingping’s JingJinJi Project initiated in 2014 integrates three heavily industrialised Northern provinces- Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei- as a single megalopolis to compete with other world-class economic regions such as the New York Tri-State Area. The estimated population of the regions combined is 130 million, whereas the water available for consumption annually per person in the three provinces stands below 184 cubic meters (Hubei is below 100) as illustrated by the China Statistical Yearbook (CSY), far below the 500 cubic meter standard of water scarcity. Water is insufficient in the North and intense development is only putting more pressure on water demand.
China plans to build world's largest water canal from Three Gorges Dam to Shanghai
Under the new phase of the project, China aims to drain water from the Three Gorges Dam to the Han River, a tributary of the Yangtze River. Water from the Dam will be sent to the Danjiangkou reservoir at the lower reaches of the Han through the Yinjiangbuhan tunnel, a large open canal.
Compared to the Päijänne in Finland, which stretches a little over 74 miles (120 km), the Yinjiangbuhan tunnel is expected to run over 870 miles (1,400 km), with some of its parts running nearly 3,300 feet (1,000 m) underground as compared to the 426 feet (130 m) that the Finnish tunnel goes into the bedrock.
Expected to cost 60 billion yuan (US$8.9 billion), the tunnel could take up to a decade to be built and, when completed, will take the waters of the Three Gorges Dam all the way to Beijing. The world's largest tunnel construction will also take engineers through some of the most challenging terrain known to humanity. High pressures in deep rocks, active fault lines, and risks of flooding and excessive heat are some of the challenges in the completion of the project.
Apart from helping revive the economy, the project is expected to turn nearly 290,000 sq. miles (570,000 sq. km) of wasteland, the size of Chile, into arable land that will be used to grow wheat, rice, corn, beans, and other such crops. This could boost China's annual food output by 595 million tons (540 million tonnes), which is as much food as the U.S. currently produces.
At 727 million tons (660 million tonnes), China's annual food production is currently the largest in the world. However, with a population of 1.4 billion to feed, it also imports 110 million tons (100 tonnes) of grains yearly, SCMP said in its report. With the increased food output, China could become a net food exporter over the next two decades.
However, what remains unknown is the environmental impact of this monumental task. The effect of one of the most significant water engineering efforts in human history will also see uncertainties
China's policy of robbing the south to pay the north is already backfiring as China's southern megacities warn of water shortages during East River drought
SHENZHEN — China’s major southern cities Guangzhou and Shenzhen have warned of severe water shortages lasting into next spring as the East River, a tributary of Guangdong’s Pearl River, continues to be hit by its most severe drought in decades.
Authorities in both cities are asking citizens to reduce water consumption, with rainfall between January to October this year down by a quarter compared to average levels over the last decade, according to the Guangzhou government.
The company in charge of Guangzhou’s water supply is taking emergency measures to deal with increased salt tides, where the water supply becomes increasingly saline due to a lack of fresh water, it said on Wednesday.
Hong Kong also imports much of its water from the East River.
More than 80% of underground water in China is heavily polluted. (source NYT)
According to statistics reported by the Chinese media, more than 80% of the underground water in large river basins of mainland China is unfit for drinking or bathing because of contamination from industry and farming. This was first revealed in 2015, following the survey of 2.103 underground wells by the Water Resources Ministry, whose results were published for the first time in the Ministry’s official website. Most public attention in recent years has focused on the country’s severe air pollution, while underground water pollution is also very alarming, as about 400 out of 600 cities in the country use groundwater as their source of drinking water. It is worth mentioning that most of them draw from deeper reservoirs that were not part of this study, but many villages and small towns in the countryside depend on shallow wells like those were tested for the report.
“From my point of view, this shows how water is the biggest environmental issue in China,” said Dabo Guan, a professor at the University of East Anglia in Britain. “People in the cities, they see air pollution every day, so it creates huge pressure from the public. But in the cities, people don’t see how bad the water pollution is,” he said, adding that as more cities are forced to dig thousands of feet underground for clean water, the capacity of those deep aquifers is being taxed.
The study found that 32.9% of the tested wells across areas mostly in Northern and Central China had Grade 4 quality water that is only fit for industrial uses. An additional 47.3% of wells were even worse, having Grade 5 quality, as contaminants like fluoride, manganese and compounds used in fungicides were found present in the water.
For years, the Chinese government has acknowledged that wells and underground water reserves were endangered by overuse as well as widespread contamination from industry and farming. However, the problem became so serious partially because the Water Resources Ministry and the Ministry of Environmental Protection haven’t yet clarified their roles and responsibilities in carrying out the National Groundwater Pollution Prevention Plan, according to Ada Kong, Greenpeace’s East Asia toxics campaign manager. The plan, issued in 2011, aimed to greatly limit the polluting of underground water resources by the end of this decade, promising 34 billion yuan ($5.2bn) in funding. It also said that China’s use of underground water almost doubled in recent years (from 57 billion m3 a year in the 1970s to 110 billion m3 in 2009), providing nearly 1/5 of the country’s total supplies.
Surface water; Water is China's Greatest Weapon and its Achilles Heel
Nourishing China’s 1.4 billion citizens is no easy feat, but the government has made major strides since the turn of the century. Between 2000 and 2019, the number of Chinese who relied on untreated sources for drinking water dropped by 150 million. This drop can largely be attributed to the herculean poverty reduction efforts undertaken by Chinese brass. However, China’s rapid industrialization and urbanization have eased the problem of water scarcity while exacerbating water pollution.
The gravity of this issue was not lost on Xi Jinping in 2013 when he remarked that “the standard that internet users apply for lake water quality is whether the mayor dares to jump in and swim.” Shortly before Xi’s comments, the residents of Shanghai had just finished fishing 16,000 dead pigs out of the nearby Huangpu River. An estimated 70% of China’s rivers and lakes are polluted, helping to explain why more than a quarter of China’s surface water is unfit for human consumption. Persistent pollution of this type does not only reduce the amount of available drinking water, but can also have serious health consequences.
China's neighbors in South Asia fear the outsized role that China has in controlling the water in their nations.
China’s South-East Asian neighbours are equally concerned by China’s response towards its water issues. Chinese territory hosts the headwaters of many important regional rivers. For example, the Mekong originates from the Tibetan Plateau and flows through Western China before reaching Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar. The Brahmaputra also flows across the boundary of China, Bangladesh and India. Therefore, China’s changes upstream can significantly impact the water of downstream countries.
China is often feared to control regional water resources, shown in its reluctance to sign international agreements on cross-border water management. The country can seize water sources without any military force; because the rivers originate within its territory, they are seen as China’s natural assets. The SNWTP reinforces this impression- despite the inclusion of transboundary rivers such as the Mekong, the Nu River and the Brahmaputra in the West Route, China keeps the project unilateral without seeking input from the affected countries. As a study has analysed, any physical resistance by these countries would be deemed as military aggression, forcing them to comply so as not to compromise regional peace and water sovereignty.
While the West Route is currently in its planning stage, there is already tension and mistrust by residents. In late 2017, the ‘Red Flag River Project’- a proposal by Chinese scientists and engineers to divert Himalayan glacial water to China’s arid West- created panic among India’s media, since Himalayan glacier melt is an important source of water for two of India’s most important rivers. Although the project was found to be fraudulent, India’s response illustrated its mistrust of China’s use of the region’s water resources.
Central Asia is also at risk. What Is China's Role in Central Asia's Changing Climate?
A 2021 article in the academic journal Water, titled “Evaluating Vulnerability of Central Asian Water Resources under Uncertain Climate and Development Conditions: The Case of the Ili-Balkhash Basin,” discusses the present future of the river and the lake. The Ili River supplies “70-80% of annual inflows to Lake Balkhash, currently the largest endorheic freshwater lake… in Central Asia,” the essay explains.
In other words, a lack of transparency regarding Beijing’s plans complicates understanding the Ili-Balkhash Basin’s present and future. Occasional reports about this topic list some of the water-demanding projects Beijing is carrying out along the Ili, like hydropower plants, water reservoirs, irrigation projects for agriculture, and a rise in water consumption in Xinjiang due to population growth. What we do know about Beijing’s ongoing projects does not bode well for Lake Balkhash, the Kazakhstani people, and the ecosystem that depends on it. One-fifth of the population of Kazakhstan lives in the Ili-Balkhash Basin, 50 percent of which are rural residents, according to the Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting.
Due to destructive Soviet-era irrigation policies, the Central Asian nation already knows what it’s like to lose one body of water: the Aral Sea. The same situation must not occur again in Lake Balkhash, which would be the worst-case scenario. According to some reports, the shallowing of Lake Balkhash is already noticeable.