China’s trade war with the United States, the uncertainties in the South China Sea and the North Korean nuclear crisis dominated the news headlines in the year 2018. However, a major threat faced by the world’s second-largest economy is the potential water crisis which would have an adverse effect on China’s economic growth.
Earlier in November 2018, reports by an independent, nongovernmental organization: Chinadialogue.net and Greenpeace East Asia emphasized the existential threats that the administration of President Xi Jinping is facing in the wake of climate change, trade war and rising domestic population. Greenpeace East Asia survey disclosed that the intensity of the glacial melt at important sites in Western China has advanced visibly in the present decade. Satellite data displays rapid glacier disappearance in the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. The use of satellite imagery by the Greenpeace reveals two serious disasters triggered by glacial melt. On 10th August 2018, a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) ruptured a natural barrier in the Karakorum Mountains in Xinjiang, gushing 35 million cubic meters (1.24 billion cubic feet) of floodwater into the Basin of Yarakant River, causing eviction of nearby residents and reducing the drinking- water supply. On 17th October 2018, a glacier disruption led to glacial debris and avalanche of ice into the Yarlung Zangbo River, stopping the river and giving rise to the landslide which displaced 6,600 people along the river. Following the landslide, flood warnings were also issued in concerned areas.
China’s overall water resources are reasonable. At over 2,000 cubic meters (m3) per person, they are above the level where water stress starts (1,700 m3), well above water scarcity (1,000 m3) and acute water scarcity (500 m3). They are roughly equal to those of the UK.
While dwelling upon water situation in China one has to look at its peculiar geography. The problem is that 80% of the water is in southern China. It results in, eight northern provinces suffering from acute water scarcity, four from scarcity, and a further two (Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia) being literally deserts. Northern provinces of China experience severe water scarcity and frequent droughts. These 12 provinces account for 38% of China’s agriculture, 46% of its industry, 50% of its power generation (coal and nuclear use a lot of water), and 41% of its population.
Melting of a glacier is a threat to China’s water and national security as they provide water to 1.8 billion people. According to an estimate, one-fifth area of a glacier in China has vanished. China manages the headwaters of ten of the eleven crucial rivers of Asia flowing through Vietnam, Afghanistan, North, and Northeastern India which is the biggest concentration of fresh water apart from the Polar Regions.
Since the 1950s, China has constructed 86,000 reservoirs, drilled more than four million wells, and developed 58 million hectares of irrigated land, which generates 70% of the country’s total grain production. Efforts to conserve water have lagged far behind. The largest threat to sustainable water supplies in China is a growing geographical mismatch between agricultural development and water resources. The center of grain production in China has moved from the humid south to the water-scarce north over the past 30 years, as southern cropland is built on and more land is irrigated further north. As the north has become drier, increased food production there has largely relied on unsustainable overuse of local water resources, especially groundwater. Wasteful irrigation infrastructure, poorly managed water use, as well as fast industrialization and urbanization, have led to serious depletion of groundwater aquifers, loss of natural habitats and water pollution.
Another lacuna affecting the water situation in China is the scattered authority across different agencies. At present, major rivers are managed by the Ministry of Water Resources, whereas local governments control smaller watercourses. Water supply, farmland irrigation, groundwater, water pollution, and weather forecasting are separately administrated by, respectively, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Land and Resources, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, and the State Meteorological Administration.
Data on precipitation, river runoff, groundwater, land use, pollution, and water use are not shared between governmental agencies or made accessible to the public. Definitely, it would be difficult to implement any holistic policy to conserve water without breaking down these bureaucratic barriers. As a starting point, China needs to build an integrated network to monitor surface and groundwater, and use it to assess and set water policies through an integrated water-resource management system. And for this to happen, China needs a law that sets out clear policies on data sharing, and penalties for those who do not comply.
The Chinese government is rightly emphasizing upon sustainable use of water resources as critical for China’s food, economic, ecological and even national security. It proposes measures like control of total water consumption, improved irrigation efficiency, restricted groundwater pumping, reduced water pollution and guaranteed funds for water-conservancy projects. These measures if supported by effective rules and regulations will go a long way to help secure and protect China’s water.
World’s second largest economy is facing a possible cataclysm in terms of water availability. Of late Chinese government has started rightly emphasizing upon sustainable use of water resources as critical for China’s food, economic, ecological and even national security. China should muster its thinking resources to chalk out a workable plan to solve the riddle of providing Adam’s ale to its populace for years to come and then work on that plan relentlessly. Fomenting fracas in its neighbors’ courtyards is not going to help. The recent revelation of Chinese gangs active in Pakistan indulging in fake marriages and forcing hapless Pakistani girls into prostitution is a case in point.
As far as water crisis is concerned China should adequately stress upon measures like control of total water consumption, improved irrigation efficiency, restricted groundwater pumping, reduced water pollution and guaranteed funds for water-conservancy. These measures if supported by effective rules and regulations will go a long way to help secure and protect China’s water.
10 May 19/Friday Written by Naphisa