23 March 2019
Some 60 percent of the country's remaining rivers suffer from pollution to such an extent that they cannot be safely used as drinking water sources. Photo: Bloomberg
Some 60 percent of the country's remaining rivers suffer from pollution to such an extent that they cannot be safely used as drinking water sources. Photo: Bloomberg

China’s fresh water needs outstrip supply

Gulp. China, home to roughly 20 percent of the world’s population, has only 7 percent of the world’s freshwater reserves. As problematic as that sounds, the situation is far, far worse.

For starters, 60 percent of China’s 661 cities face seasonal water shortage, and over 100 cities have severe water constraints. As many as 28,000 rivers have vanished from the country since the 1990s.

Water scarcity a given, 60 percent of the country’s remaining rivers suffer from pollution to such an extent that they cannot be safely used as drinking water sources, according to China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Factor in that 70 percent of the groundwater in the heavily populated northern China plain is unfit for human touch, let alone drinking or irrigation, and you have a humongous problem.

“China’s water is worse than its air,” said a recent Bloomberg headline, with China Water Risk, a non-profit watchdog funded and managed by Hong Kong-based ADM Capital Foundation, summing it up by saying that China’s water resources are affected by both severe water quantity shortages and severe water quality pollution.

Earlier this month, the Chinese city of Lanzhou in Gansu was rocked by a weekend of panic when the city’s water supply was found to be contaminated by benzene—a chemical compound which causes cancer—at levels of up to 20 times the national safety levels, said China Radio International. Yet, no warning was given for 18 hours.

And that’s part of the problem. As things stand, so many agencies have a say in environmental oversight, it’s almost impossible to take strong, swift action, noted Bloomberg. Groundwater monitoring alone is overseen by three different ministries, and this makes enforcement slow and ineffective.

While Beijing as recently as last year insisted that climate change was to blame for rivers running dry, authorities are at least making moves to make the best of what they have by drafting tough new environmental laws for polluters.

Violators who ordinarily pay cheap fines and then continue to pollute would be subject to daily, unlimited penalties and possible criminal charges, said Bloomberg. But this law is in its fourth draft and still undergoing revisions, and there’s no guarantee the stronger penalties will survive to the final version.

Beijing is also trying alleviate the dire water shortage in northern China by investing heavily in desalination projects.

A coastal desalination plant planned for east of Beijing could provide a large portion of the drinking water for the parched Chinese capital by 2019, the New York Times reported, citing state news media.

The proposed plant, to be located in the city of Tangshan in Hebei province, would supply one million tons of fresh water each day, which could account for one-third of the water consumption of Beijing, a city of more than 22 million people, officials said.

The price tag for the project is an estimated US$1.1 billion for the plant and US$1.6 billion for the 170-mile pipeline to Beijing.

The Chinese government has also been working on a multi-decade project to divert and transport at least 6 trillion gallons of water each year to northern China from the Yangtze River and its tributaries, which are in southern China—an area with water supply and pollution problems of its own.

The enormous engineering feat, unimaginatively but accurately called the South-North Water Diversion Project, will consist of a series of canals, waterways and dams stretching over 1,700 miles at an estimated cost of US$62 billion, twice the price of Three Gorges Dam. The scheme will displace 350,000 villagers along the way.

Ed Wong, a Beijing correspondent for the New York Times, likened the project to channeling water from the Mississippi River to meet the drinking needs of Boston, New York and Washington. That’s crazy, but you have to do what you have to do, I guess.

The South-North Water Diversion Project is years behind and US$17 billion over budget, so far, partly because pollution problems have forced officials to build 426 sewage treatment plants along the route.

Meanwhile, bottled water remains a hot commodity in China, with market volume up 14 percent at 54 billion liters in the most recently measured year.

In 2013, the bottled-water sector in China reported sales of US$16.3 billion, up 23.2 percent from the previous year, said Want China Times. A study conducted by Shenzhen-based consulting firm Askci suggests that the figure was merely US$6.3 billion in 2008. Analysts predict the sector will hit US$24.1 billion in sales by 2018.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]



A strategist and marketing consultant on China business

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