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The Land of 28,000 Missing Rivers

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.