from Asia Unbound

China’s Economy and the Water Crisis—A Fresh Take

February 16, 2011

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The algae-filled Chaohu Lake is seen in Hefei, Anhui province, on August 3, 2010.
The algae-filled Chaohu Lake is seen in Hefei, Anhui province, on August 3, 2010. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

While China’s economy continues to grab headlines, a new report, "Choke Point: China," suggests  that we ought to be spending a bit more time on an often-ignored economic fundamental: water.   China’s environment has been a long-standing passion of mine, both as a research focus and as an area to promote U.S.-China cooperation. While China’s poor air quality has received a lot of attention in the West—we can all see the pollution in Beijing or read about the pollution clouds that travel from China across the Pacific to the United States—the issue of greatest concern for China is access to clean water.

We know a fair amount about China’s water challenge already. Both municipal and industrial demand for water continues to grow, as both the economy and middle class expand, and levels of pollution throughout many of China’s major river systems and largest lakes make the water unusable even for agriculture or industry (forget about fishing or drinking). China is sinking as underground aquifers are drawn down, with the result that buildings are tilting, highways cracking, and people relocating as their coastal villages sink beneath sea level. Water is a source of societal concern: the public health costs from polluted water are mounting, and water pollution remains a source of significant social unrest in rural China. Civil society in China, in the form of environmental NGOs, has made enforcement of water pollution control regulations one of their top priorities.

However, there is always more to learn, and the new web-based media report, "Choke Point: China—Confronting Water Scarcity and Energy Demand in the World’s Largest Country," produced by the NGO Circle of Blue, takes a fresh look at this issue. It leads with good news: Some cities, such as Beijing, for example, are beginning to recycle wastewater for use in toilets or other grey-water applications. Yet, the bulk of the initial report—and this is the first in a series of twelve postings yet to come—underscores the challenge the country faces, particularly from the nexus of energy and water. Almost 20% of China’s water consumption goes to the mining, processing, and consumption of coal. Coal consumption has tripled since 2000, and Chinese analysts project another 30% increase by 2020. To meet the water demand will require ever more costly, large-scale, and technologically complex river diversion projects—a plan of action that many view as untenable over the long term.

"Choke Point: China" doesn’t yet explore the broader ramifications of such growth, such as discussions in Beijing of diverting water from the Yarlung Tsangpo (which flows into the Brahmaputra), which would likely lead to serious political tensions with India or the implications of growing water scarcity for global agricultural commodities. However, I would bet that these issues and many others will be discussed in the rest of the twelve-part series. I, for one, will read each eagerly to see what the water future for China and the rest of the region might hold.

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