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A stormy outlook for China's water supply

Insatiable demand, colossal new projects, unknown outcome

A stormy outlook for China's water supply

Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. Picture: Shutterstock

Michael Sainsbury

September 3, 2014

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Forget corruption, food contamination scandals and even China’s notorious smog.  The country’s main problem is a growing water shortage.
As desertification creeps from the Gobi Desert in the north, climate change slowly dries up run-off water from the Himalayas in the west and China’s economy continues at lightning speed in the east, the country is slowly running out of water.
China uses 600 billion of water every year, or about 400 per person – only about a quarter of that used by the average American. But then, only about 40 percent is reused, a rate half of that compared to Europe, and China is much more densely populated, particularly in mega-cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Chongqing where it needs water the most.
For each of its roughly 1.35 billion people, China has about 1,730 of fresh water per person, just above the 1,700 the United Nations considers “stressed”, as noted recently by Bloomberg.
Simply put, the amount of water used in northeastern China in particular is unsustainable, both for the population and the huge coal industry which still powers 70 percent of electricity here. Although China is far from being the only perpetrator, it is among the worst in the speed of its environmental degradation including loss of water.
Can China change?
In the past weekend edition of the state-run English-language China Daily, WWF took out a half-page advert warning Chinese that “there are only 12 billion hectares of biologically productive land and water on Earth yet we live as if there were 18.2 billion hectares”.
“We’re depleting our support system faster than it can recharge,” it added.
Signs are that Beijing has taken note of the damage being done; the question is whether it can respond effectively. In recent years, the government has signed a growing number of long term natural gas deals with neighboring Central Asian states,  in particular Turkmenistan. As China builds an ever growing network of pipelines across its westernmost frontier into Xinjiang province and on to the rest of the country, the idea is that it will slowly wean itself off coal.
Local officials now openly talk of plans to stop Beijing and surrounding mega-cities including Shijiazhuang and Tianjin from growing more. So far though, China has failed to stem the tide of urban migration.
Managing water remains another huge challenge if China is to reuse more instead of letting it seep away. The country’s history brims full of impressive water projects – dams, canals and pipelines. Emperors built water channels that served as the arteries of trade for what was once the world’s most advanced nation, and more recently Communist rulers have moved mountains and whole towns to build hydropower dams that also supply drinkable water. Many have hurt rather than helped the sustainable use of water across this vast country, however.
As early as the 1920s, the founding father of modern China, Sun Yat Sen, envisioned damning the Yangtze River to generate power for industry and ease annual floods. Finally realized in 2008, the project cost US$26 billion, resulted in the relocation of one million people and has since caused massive sedimentation thereby reducing reservoir capacity and volumes flowing downstream.
The upside is that hydropower production reduces dependence on coal, but at what cost? Few signs suggest that China has looked beyond the economy when it comes to developing yet more dams and water management projects.
At an estimated cost of $62 billion, the mother of all Chinese water projects is the south-to-north water diversion scheme, the biggest ever undertaken in the country, which mirrors the urban migration that fueled water shortages in the first place. It involves drawing water from southern rivers and directing it to the increasingly arid north.
The first phase will see some water transported this year with the whole network due for completion in 2050, by when it will transfer about 50 billion annually.
A major component is Danjiangkou Dam in northeastern Hebei province neighboring Beijing, which will receive much of the increased water supply once completed. Originally built in the 1950s, the dam wall was raised in the 1970s to 162 ms which will be increased to 176.6 meters, in turn expanding its reservoir by 40 percent to nearly 30 billion
The project feels like history repeating itself: 345,000 people will have to be relocated, historical sites will disappear under water – as they did around the Three Gorges Dam – and China’s delicate water system will again suffer from human interference. The side effects, of course, are as yet not fully understood.
As Samuel Coleridge, author of the China-inspired poem Xanadu, wrote in The Rime o f the Ancient Mariner: “Water, water, everywhere, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.” 
Michael Sainsbury is a Bangkok-based journalist and commentator
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