For visitors, China’s water problem becomes apparent upon entering the hotel room. The smell of a polluted river might emanate from the showerhead. Need to quench your thirst? The drip from the tap is rarely potable. Can you trust the bottled water? Many Chinese don’t. What about brushing your teeth?
Measured by the government’s own standards, more than half of the country’s largest lakes and reservoirs were so contaminated in 2011 that they were unsuitable for human consumption. China’s more than 4,700 underground water-quality testing stations show that nearly three-fifths of all water supplies are “relatively bad” or worse. Roughly half of rural residents lack access to drinking water that meets international standards.
For all of the dazzling progress that the world has come to associate with a booming 21st century China, the quality of its water supply has failed to keep up with the country’s leap into modernity.
Policy makers and the Chinese public rightfully blame lax environmental controls and shoddy enforcement. But the more fundamental problem is that the country simply doesn’t have enough water. Breakneck and large-scale industrialization has overwhelmed scarce supplies — and drinking water has become one of the most visible casualties.
China contains only about 7 percent of the world’s fresh water while sustaining nearly 20 percent of its population. In stark contrast, Lake Michigan in the United States holds about 4 percent of the world’s fresh water (the Great Lakes combined contain about 20 percent).
Despite China’s limited resource base, the country’s vertiginous and dense urban jungles continue to grow. More water is needed with each skyscraper added to urban China’s skylines, each ton of coal burned to heat them, and each steamer of dumplings sold on their steps. And every time water is discharged from a new residential complex or power plant, it returns to the river basins a little dirtier.
China’s two major rivers — the Yellow River and the Yangtze River — illustrate the problem. Both waterways traverse the country’s major industrial belts as they flow from west to east. By the time the water reaches China’s coastal population centers, it requires extensive treatment before it is potable.
Unfortunately for China’s neighbors, water scarcity has ramifications beyond Chinese borders. Tensions over how to share water from the Mekong River, one of the world’s longest, have rattled relations with the country’s Southeast Asian neighbors.
The Mekong flows out of China’s southwestern Yunnan Province and spans throughout most of Southeast Asia. Like most major waterways, the Mekong is a central artery that sustains development, commerce and trade — and local livelihoods.
China has built a number of new hydroelectric dams along the river in recent years to support economic development in the relatively impoverished southwest. The result has been a slowing of the Mekong’s flow when it reaches China’s downstream neighbors, threatening the health of Southeast Asian fisheries and water security. Water levels in the Mekong Delta reached their lowest levels in 50 years in 2010, igniting discord between China and its neighbors.
To tackle this growing challenge, Beijing is turning to policies that address both the increasing demand and the limited supply.
The government has started a gargantuan supply-side project — the “South-to-North Diversion” — which will redistribute water from the wet South to the arid North through a massive complex network of aqueducts. It is an intriguing idea in the abstract, but leakage and contamination may make the water unusable by the time it reaches the cities of the North. And it does nothing to increase the overall scarcity of fresh water.
Other solutions, mostly requiring large investments in technologies, are being tested as well. A mega desalinization plant has been built as a pilot project in the northern city of Tianjin. Beijing has also called for more substantial investment in wastewater recycling technology. Meanwhile, Chinese industry, under pressure from the government, is seeking solutions for more efficient water usage. Altering water prices, though politically sensitive, may help better manage demand in the future.
Still, there is no silver bullet to quickly and cleanly solve the problems. Many of the technological solutions are costly and difficult to scale-up rapidly.
If the past 35 years of a resource-intensive economic boom have demonstrated anything, it is that the Chinese government is capable of producing growth, revving it up when necessary and reining it in when domestic priorities demand. But the country’s leadership must now face the legacy of a long boom that drew down a finite resource base to an extent that the world has yet to grasp. Major changes must come for how China manages these scarce resources — if not willfully, then by the indomitable force of necessity.
Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute and William Adams is a center associate of the University of Pittsburgh Asian Studies Center. This article is adapted from In Line Behind a Billion People: How Scarcity Will Define China’s Ascent in the Next Decade, published in August.