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.”

May 04, 2016
CJ Hopkins
Coming this Summer … Revenge of the Bride of Sophie’s Choice
May 03, 2016
Gary Leupp
Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy Resumé: What the Record Shows
Michèle Brand – Arun Gupta
What is the “Nuit Debout”?
Chuck Churchill
The Failures of Capitalism, Donald Trump and Right Wing Terror
Dave Marsh
Bernie and the Greens
John Wight
Zionism Should be on Trial, Not Ken Livingstone
Rev. John Dear
A Dweller in Peace: the Life and Times of Daniel Berrigan
Patrick Cockburn
Saudi Arabia’s Great Leap Forward: What Would Mao Think?
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Electoral Votes Matter: Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders vs Donald Trump
Chris Gilbert
Venezuela Today: This Must Be Progress
Pepe Escobar
The Calm Before the Coming Global Storm
Ruth Fowler
Intersecting with the Identity Police (Or Why I Stopped Writing Op-Eds)
Victor Lasa
The Battle Rages on in Spain: the Country Prepares for Repeat Elections in June
Jack Rasmus
Is the US Economy Heading for Recession?
Dean Baker
Time for an Accountable Federal Reserve
Ted Rall
Working for US Gov Means Never Saying Sorry
Dave Welsh
Hunger Strikers at Mission Police Station: “Stop the execution of our people”
John Eskow
The Death of Prince and the Death of Lonnie Mack
May 02, 2016
Michael Hudson – Gordon Long
Wall Street Has Taken Over the Economy and is Draining It
Paul Street
The Bernie Fade Begins
Ron Jacobs
On the Frontlines of Peace: the Life of Daniel Berrigan
Louis Yako
Dubai Transit
Bill Quigley
Teacher, Union Leader, Labor Lawyer: Profile of Chris Williams Social Justice Advocate
Patrick Cockburn
Into the Green Zone: Iraq’s Disintegrating Political System
Lawrence Ware
Trump is the Presidential Candidate the Republicans Deserve
Ron Forthofer
Just Say No to Corporate Rule
Ralph Nader
The Long-Distance Rebound of Bernie Sanders
Ken Butigan
Remembering Daniel Berrigan, with Gratitude
Nicolas J S Davies
Escalating U.S. Air Strikes Kill Hundreds of Civilians in Mosul, Iraq
Binoy Kampmark
Class, Football, and Blame: the Hillsborough Disaster Inquest
George Wuerthner
The Economic Value of Yellowstone National Park
Rivera Sun
Celebrating Mother Jones
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir and Postcolonialism
Mairead Maguire
Drop the Just War Theory
Weekend Edition
April 29, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
What is the Democratic Party Good For? Absolutely Nothing
Roberto J. González – David Price
Anthropologists Marshalling History: the American Anthropological Association’s Vote on the Academic Boycott of Israeli Institutions
Robert Jacobs
Hanford, Not Fukushima, is the Big Radiological Threat to the West Coast
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
US Presidential Election: Beyond Lesser Evilism
Dave Lindorff
The Push to Make Sanders the Green Party’s Candidate
Peter Linebaugh
Marymount, Haymarket, Marikana: a Brief Note Towards ‘Completing’ May Day
Ian Fairlie
Chernobyl’s Ongoing Toll: 40,000 More Cancer Deaths?
Pete Dolack
Verizon Sticks it to its Workers Because $45 Billion isn’t Enough
Moshe Adler
May Day: a Trade Agreement to Unite Third World and American Workers
Margaret Kimberley
Dishonoring Harriet Tubman
Deepak Tripathi
The United States, Britain and the European Union
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail