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A research factoid on China's Water Problem – Civil unrest?
Or technology to the rescue?

Most studies maintain that both urban and rural areas in China are facing equally serious water pollution problems. Urban inhabitants in China draw 70% of their drinking water from groundwater sources. Between 50% and 90% of urban groundwater, however, is contaminated by agricultural runoff, industrial and municipal wastewater and in some municipalities, even toxic mine tailings. Nearly 50% of above ground rivers have a 'black' [poor] grade of 5 (meaning, not suitable for agriculture or industry). Since 2002, approximately 63 billion tons of wastewater flow into China’s rivers each year, of which 62% are pollutants from industrial sources, and 38% are poorly treated or raw sewage from municipalities[1].

In rural areas, 700 million citizens lack access to safe water. Agro-waste is a huge problem. Animal factory farms, known as confined animal feeding operations or CAFOs, produce a total of circa 3 billion tons of livestock manure annually; 3.4 times the industrial solid waste generated nationwide. Much of this manure finds its way into the watershed complex. As well chemical spills are common in ex-urban and rural areas. According to SEPA over half of China’s 21,000 chemical plants are located along the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. Few of these plants have stringent eco-safeguards or regulations. It would be natural to assume that the chemical spill off from these plants into rivers is commonplace.


Given the above facts, human health must suffer as a derivative of water pollution. The Chinese Ministry of Health has publicly commented on a disturbing trend of higher than normal rates of tumors, cancer, spontaneous abortions and diminished IQs among populations living near polluted rivers and lakes. These occurrences number in the millions. Water borne pollutants also affect agricultural output and productivity leading in some cases to diminished food output and higher food imports [mostly from the USA which has tripled its food exports to China in recent years].

China water problems
While agriculture still consumes nearly 70% of water resources in China, water consumption in industrial and domestic sectors has of course been rising at a rapid rates and most of these sectors are very inefficient in their usage of water [2]. A study done 10 years found that the amount of water used for every $10,000 worth of GDP in China was 537 m3, four times the world’s average and nearly 20 times that of Japan and Europe (Economic Daily, August 8, 2005). By 2012 it would be expected that these ratios are even worse. Water planning and proper usage is not an important facet of Chinese industrialization or production.

Depletion in the North and West and ghost-towns:

In the dry north, grain production accounts for more than 45% of China’s GDP [3]. In northern and western China, the degradation and poor productive usage of water and land resources has caused desertification to advance at an annual rate of 1,300 square miles, affecting 400 million people. Some 24,000 villages in northern and western China have been abandoned or partially depopulated due to growing desertification [4]. Continued desertification will exacerbate rural migration into cities as well as increase the severity of the spring sandstorms[5]. The lack of water access in the north and west will only lead to a population exodus to the already overcrowded eastern periphery. This migration of souls will intensity pressure on an already over-burdened eastern China water-infrastructure. When one considers that the largest river in China – the Yellow River -- often does not flow to the ocean for up to 200 days a year [6], the potential socio-environmental impact of further human migration and demand, is clear.

'Dammed' if you do or if you don't:
Water conservation is not emphasized or practised. The converse is official policy. Increasing the supply of water through major dam and water diversion projects continues to be a cornerstone of Beijing’s response. The 'South-North Water Transfer project', which comprises three canals that will bring water from the Yangtze River to quench the thirst of the arid north is one of the largest projects in world history. Part of the rationale for damming the unique and beautiful Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the more than 200 dams planned in southwest China, is to divert its reservoir water to Lake Dianchi in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, to dilute its pollution problems. These enormous water transfer and dam projects are costly—in terms of money, loss of agricultural land, ecological damage and hardships on relocated people—and increasingly are leading to protects by displaced locals and eco-groups.

Government response:
The central government is well aware of the above issues. They are reacting and oftentimes the policies are both sensible and beneficial. But they do not supersede the stated goal to both increase water supply from the south to the north; and to keep the economy growing at 10% per annum. Included in the central party's actions on the water crisis are the following:


Huai River:
In spite of the above, the basic premise of government is to grow supply and divert the water resources of the south to the north. The Huai River is an emblem of this policy and it can hardly be called a success. Despite a 2 decade-long central government campaign that began in 1993 to clean up the river, it is still one of the most polluted in China and millions of people in the basin suffer from significantly higher rates of cancer as well as other health problems. There are huge difficulties in pressuring local governments to regulate the very industries that prop up the local economy. Any attempt to create a link between economic growth and 'green issues or progress' have failed. Even lawsuits pertaining to water problems, pollution, eco-standards or human health conditions endangered by water issues, are routinely ignored or made illegal at the local level.
China's water problems remains perhaps the greatest issue facing the country. Currently there is little in the Chinese political-economy which gives most analysts much hope, that the problems will be addressed properly or constructively to ensure economic growth, whilst halting social, environmental, health and pollution concerns. Technology will be the basis of a solution, but only within the context of the merged economic-political concerns which dominate China.

Some Notes


  1. U.S. Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration, 2005 Water Supply and Wastewater Treatment Market in China, Washington, DC.
  2. For example, only 43% of the water consumed in agriculture is used efficiently for irrigation, compared to 70% to 80% in developed countries. See U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China’s Water Supply Problems, 2003, available at Chinese urbanites have increased their per capita daily water consumption about 150% between 1980 and 2000—from less than 100 liters in 1980 to 244 liters in 2000. At least 20% of the water supplies to cities are lost through leaky pipes, so this official per capita consumption figure underestimates total urban water use. See Dabo Guan and Klaus Hubacek. (2004). “Lifestyle Changes and its Influences on Energy and Water Consumption in China,” Proceedings of the 6th Conference for postgraduate students, young scientists and researchers on Environmental Economics, Policy and International Environmental Relations, Prague (October 7-8), p. 389. Guan Xiaofeng. (2005). “Water Crisis Needs Urgent Solutions,” China Daily, November 1, available online at
  3. Lohmar, Bryan, Jinxia Wang, Scott Rozelle, Jikun Huang, and David Dawe, China’s Agricultural Water Policy Reforms: Increasing Investment, Resolving Conflicts, and Revising Incentives, 2003. Economic Research Service Agriculture Information Bulletin Number 782. (Washington, DC: United States Department of Agriculture), p. 3.
  4. Lester Brown, Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005).
  5. 100 sandstorms are expected between 2000 and 2009, a marked increase over the 23 in the previous decade (Geotimes, October 18-21, 2005). The impact of these sandstorms extends well beyond China’s borders to Korea, and Japan, and the U.S. west coast.
  6. Wang Yahua, “River Governance Structure in China: A Study of Water Quantity/Quality Management Regimes,” 2005. In Promoting Sustainable River Basin Governance: Crafting Japan-U.S. Water Partnerships in China, IDE Spot Survey No. 28, Jennifer L. Turner and Kenji Otsuka (Ed.), (Chiba, Japan: Institute of Developing Economies/IDE-Jetro, 2005), p. 23-36.