FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

China’s Impending Water Crisis

by CESAR CHELALA

As a lot of attention is being paid to the negative consequences of environmental pollution in China, another crisis is brewing of equally dangerous consequences for people’s health and for the country’s development: water scarcity.

The National Intelligence Council (NIC) report Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds states with regard to China, “climate change, urbanization trends and middle class lifestyles will create huge water demand and crop shortages by 2030.” Aside from its economic and public health costs, water scarcity also endangers economic growth and social stability.

Lack of water in China is compounded by the high levels of water pollution. Hu Siyi, vice minister at the Ministry of Water Resources stated in 2012 that up to 40 percent of China’s rivers were seriously polluted after 75 billion tons of sewage and waste water were discharged into them. He also said that about two-thirds of Chinese cities are “water needy” and that nearly 300 million rural residents lack access to safe drinking water.

It is estimated that 4.05 million hectares of land are irrigated with polluted water, which has a negative effect on crop yields and on the quality and food safety. Water pollution causes growing levels of diarrhea and viral hepatitis, particularly in children under-5. The effects on health of water pollution are particularly serious in places where industrial effluents are not controlled or there are no sewerage and wastewater treatment plants.

One of the reasons for the high levels of pollution is that, with the rapid industrialization of the country, a large number of chemical plants were built along the Yangtze River and near some critical drinking water resources. Those resources have been contaminated by large spills of some toxic chemicals such as cadmium and chromium. In addition, large portions of China’s aquifers (body of saturated rock through which water can easily move) suffer from arsenic contamination of groundwater.

A 2013 report from the Geological Survey of China stated that 90% of the country’s ground water is polluted. Estimates from the Ministry of Environmental Protection say that the water from approximately 25% of China’s major rivers is so polluted that it couldn’t be used for industry or agriculture. According to the Ministry of Supervision there are approximately 1,700 water pollution accidents annually resulting in almost 60,000 premature deaths annually.

This is a paradoxical situation since China is one of the most water-rich countries in the world. However, its water resources are unevenly distributed since they are overwhelmingly concentrated in the south part of the country while the northern regions are prone to lack of water, a situation which is reaching crisis levels. 

The Ministry of Water Resources announced in 2012 the results of a survey of the country’s waterways which revealed that 28,000 rivers had disappeared over the past 20 years, raising serious fears among environmentalists and government officials. Although some officials believe that such a dramatic decline could be explained by outdated mapping techniques, experts believe that a more plausible explanation is the country’s rapid economic development and poorly enforced environmental guidelines. 

In addition, China controls the headwaters of several important rivers in Asia, such as the Irtysh, Mekong and Brahmaputra. The damming of those rivers by China has provoked protests from the countries affected. China’s actions upstream may have dramatic consequences on the lower reaches influencing water flow, floods, sedimentation levels, presence of a variety of wildlife as well as people’s livelihoods downstream. China has built as many large dams as the rest of the world put together.

Faced with this critical situation the Chinese government is taking a series of measures such as the construction of the South-North Water Transfer Project, a $62 billion enterprise twice as expensive as the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project. The aim of the South-North project is to divert at least six trillion gallons of water each year from the southern region to the Yellow and Hai rivers in north China.

Such a huge project, however, has several drawbacks. Aside from the cost, perhaps the most important is the number of people who are going to be affected by the project. More than 350,000 villagers are being relocated to make way for the canal, in many cases to low-grade farmland far from their original homes and. In addition, a project of this magnitude can destroy the natural ecology of the southern rivers with negative effects on people’s health.

Because of the doubts about the quality of the water to be diverted desalinization is being tried as an alternative.  However, desalinization uses considerable amounts of energy to produce filters, and to process and transport clean water, argues Zhang Junfeng, an environmental activist and Professor of Environmental and Global Health at the University of Southern California. He also says that desalinization is a quick fix solution which doesn’t encourage people to conserve valuable resources.

Experts argue that the Chinese government should focus on reducing the demand of water through a more rational use of limited supplies and controlling pollution. In addition, new regulations should be enacted to lead to a more efficient use of water in industry and in agriculture. New cities should be built taking into consideration the availability of water and polluters should be fined. Ultimately, many experts believe that the solution to China’s water crisis is more political than technical.

Cesar Chelala, MD, PhD. is an international public health consultant and a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award. 

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

February 21, 2017
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Finance as Warfare: the IMF Lent to Greece Knowing It Could Never Pay Back Debt
CJ Hopkins
Goose-stepping Our Way Toward Pink Revolution
John Wight
Firestarter: the Unwelcome Return of Tony Blair
Roger Harris
Lenin Wins: Pink Tide Surges in Ecuador…For Now
Shepherd Bliss
Japanese American Internment Remembered, as Trump Rounds Up Immigrants
Boris Kagarlitsky
Trump and the Contradictions of Capitalism
Robert Fisk
The Perils of Trump Addiction
Deepak Tripathi
Theresa May: Walking the Kingdom Down a Dark Alley
Sarah Anderson
To Save Main Street, Tax Wall Street
Howard Lisnoff
Those Who Plan and Enjoy Murder
Franklin Lamb
The Life and Death Struggle of the Children of Syria
Binoy Kampmark
A Tale of Two Realities: Trump and Israel
Kim C. Domenico
Body and Soul: Becoming Men & Women in a Post-Gender Age
Mel Gurtov
Trump, Europe, and Chaos
Stephen Cooper
Steinbeck’s Road Map For Resisting Donald Trump
February 20, 2017
Bruce E. Levine
Humiliation Porn: Trump’s Gift to His Faithful…and Now the Blowback
Melvin Goodman
“Wag the Dog,” Revisited
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima: a Lurking Global Catastrophe?
David Smith-Ferri
Resistance and Resolve in Russia: Memorial HRC
Kenneth Surin
Global India?
Norman Pollack
Fascistization Crashing Down: Driving the Cleaver into Social Welfare
Patrick Cockburn
Trump v. the Media: a Fight to the Death
Susan Babbitt
Shooting Arrows at Heaven: Why is There Debate About Battle Imagery in Health?
Matt Peppe
New York Times Openly Promotes Formal Apartheid Regime By Israel
David Swanson
Understanding Robert E. Lee Supporters
Michael Brenner
The Narcissism of Donald Trump
Martin Billheimer
Capital of Pain
Thomas Knapp
Florida’s Shenanigans Make a Great Case for (Re-)Separation of Ballot and State
Jordan Flaherty
Best Films of 2016: Black Excellence Versus White Mediocrity
Weekend Edition
February 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
David Price
Rogue Elephant Rising: The CIA as Kingslayer
Matthew Stevenson
Is Trump the Worst President Ever?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Flynn?
John Wight
Brexit and Trump: Why Right is Not the New Left
Diana Johnstone
France: Another Ghastly Presidential Election Campaign; the Deep State Rises to the Surface
Neve Gordon
Trump’s One-State Option
Roger Harris
Emperor Trump Has No Clothes: Time to Organize!
Joan Roelofs
What Else is Wrong with Globalization
Andrew Levine
Why Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban?
Mike Whitney
Blood in the Water: the Trump Revolution Ends in a Whimper
Vijay Prashad
Trump, Turmoil and Resistance
Ron Jacobs
U.S. Imperial War Personified
David Swanson
Can the Climate Survive Adherence to War and Partisanship?
Andre Vltchek
Governor of Jakarta: Get Re-elected or Die!
Patrick Cockburn
The Coming Destruction of Mosul
Norman Pollack
Self-Devouring Reaction: Governmental Impasse
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail