China Bets on Massive Water Transfers to Solve Crisis

by Susanne Wong
Saturday, December 15, 2007

Beneath the booming factories and verdant fields of Northern China, groundwater supplies are rapidly drying up. The water table around Beijing drops five meters each year. Some deep wells around Beijing must be drilled up to half a mile deep before reaching water, according to the World Bank. Chronic water shortages have left cities without adequate drinking water and affected plans for economic development.

Scientists now estimate that the aquifers beneath the North China Plain will dry up in 30 years. “There’s no uncertainty,” said hydrologist Richard Evans, who has worked as a consultant for 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.”

When you consider that 200 million people live on the North China Plain – the region bounded by the Hai, Huai and Yellow rivers – and 60% of the water they use comes from groundwater, the statistics are sobering. The North China Plain is home to the megacities of Beijing and Tianjin and the provinces of Hebei, Henan and Shandong.

The evolution of this crisis is complex. Since 1949, water use across the country has quintupled. After massive flood damages in the 1960s, Chairman Mao Zedong embarked on a campaign of building dams and canals that altered the country's hydrology and natural landscape. As cities grew, water from reservoirs started flowing to cities, bypassing farmers. Farmers, encouraged to help the government achieve its goal of grain self-sufficiency, began pumping more and more groundwater to grow wheat. As cities started burgeoning, they began mining groundwater as well. To make matters worse, scientists now conclude that climate change has reduced rainfall in the region.

The country’s focus on economic growth and agricultural self-sufficiency has left little room for consideration of environmental impacts. Chinese industry uses 4 -10 times more water for production than industrialized countries, according to the World Bank. Irrigation accounts for about 70% of North China’s total water use, yet water use efficiency is only about 40 percent. In the US, water use efficiency rates of 75–80%are considered to be a good standard.

Replumbing the country

To address the water crisis, the Chinese government has turned to a grandiose engineering scheme originally conceived by Chairman Mao. Named the South-North Water Transfer Project, the US$62 billion scheme would ship 12 trillion gallons of water per year via three canals from the Yangtze River in the South to the Yellow River basin in the North. This is equivalent to nearly half the amount of water consumed in California annually. Construction on the eastern and central routes is already underway and expected to be completed by 2008 and 2010, respectively. The controversial western route, which would involve the construction of several dams in the upper Yangtze River basin and hundreds of miles of tunnels through the Bayankela Mountains, remains in the planning stages. The entire project is projected to take 50 years to complete.

The primary beneficiary of the project’s water is cities and industries. The eastern route will provide water for domestic and industrial water use for Shandong and Jiangsu provinces. The central route is to provide water for more than 20 cities, including Beijing and Tianjin. Farmers will be the last to benefit from project water, if at all.

In 2006, one of the Ministry of Water Resources’ lead project proponents, Zhu Ruixiang, claimed that once the project is fully completed, “the present conflicts caused by competitive water users of agricultural, industrial, domestic and ecological shall be alleviated. Water demand of agriculture and ecologic system shall be met and over-exploitation of groundwater shall be controlled.”

Cracks in the concrete

Despite such claims, high-level government officials have recognized that the project won’t solve China's water problems.

The government is strongly concerned about water quality along the eastern route of the project, which will rely mostly on existing canals, riverbeds and lakes. Because water along this stretch is already very polluted, many are concerned that the eastern route will become a conduit for run-off from factories and farms. Companies are also scrambling to build new industrial parks along the proposed route and are likely to dump their wastewater into the canals. Some are worried that pollution may be so severe that the water in the eastern route will not be fit for use.

During the 2006 National People's Congress meeting, Premier Wen Jiabao tried to allay concerns by declaring that China would emphasize "the prevention and treatment of pollution at the sources and along the routes of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project." The majority of funds for the eastern route are earmarked for the construction of pollution control facilities.

In an effort to encourage water conservation, the project is likely to involve increased water tariffs. However, some cities and provinces are saying that they may pass up project water if it costs too much.

Diversion of water from the Yangtze will likely worsen pollution problems along the river. Roughly 40% of China’s wastewater is now dumped in the Yangtze, according to The New York Times. As water is diverted northward, less water will be available in the Yangtze to dilute pollution. This will negatively impact biodiversity along the river.

Social impacts are also expected to be great. Roughly 300,000 people are to be resettled by the project. The majority of resettlers would be displaced by the raising of Danjiankou Dam for the central route. Given China’s poor experience with dams and resettlement, many more are likely to be affected and their livelihoods disrupted.

A better way

Despite the project’s high costs and questionable benefits, Chinese water expert Ma Jun has acknowledged that the emergency water shortages in the North have given the country few options. However, if the project's high “external” costs had been considered, government officials would have emphasized alternative methods for solving the water shortage in North China, says Ma.

Many argue that the government should invest in conservation and improving water management practices. “We have to now focus on conservation,” said Ma. “We don’t have much extra water resources. We have the same resources and much bigger pressures from growth.”

There have also been calls for increased water use efficiency for agriculture. During recent years, China’s Ministry of Agriculture undertook a program to use plastic film and mulches to reduce surface evaporation, introduce drought-resistant crops and use low-flow sprinkler systems, according to China Development Brief.

Increasing water tariffs is also seen as an important step to reduce water use and encourage conservation. Currently, farmers pay for water based on the area irrigated, as opposed to the amount of water used. Changing the pricing scheme could reduce water use, especially for low-value crops like grains. However, without government programs to offset the changed water rates, it would likely undermine the already fragile economic viability of many farms.

The potential water savings from rainwater harvesting are enormous. Currently, over 21 million Chinese harvest rainwater to meet their domestic needs. Beijing has 55 pilot projects encouraging the use of rainwater harvesting. However, the Beijing Municipal Water Authority estimates that 230 million cubic meters of rainwater could be used annually.

“Unlike rainwater harvesting in rural areas, urban rainwater utilization isn’t just important for saving water,” says Che Wu, a professor with the Beijing Institute of Civil Engineering and Architecture. “It’s also important in abating urban flooding, groundwater depletion, and rainwater runoff pollution, as well as for improving urban ecosystems.”

Rainwater harvesting presents one important low-cost tool for addressing China’s water crisis. The serious shortages and extreme pollution will warrant an aggressive multi-pronged approach. The question is whether China will make decisions thoughtfully to ensure that some “solutions” do not exacerbate water problems in the future.