How China is managing its lack of water

In August, the scorching heatwave in southwest China laid bare the country’s many interrelated water security challenges.

In August, the scorching heatwave in southwest China laid bare the country’s many interrelated water security challenges.

China’s driest and hottest summer has been since it began keeping records in 1961. The severe heatwave was brought on by a greater-than-usual Western Pacific subtropical high, further compounded by reduced rainfall. The effects of these extreme weather events are seen in many provinces and sections of the Yangtze River Basin (YRB). The YRB is one of China’s strategic development regions and the country’s longest river.

Estimates from the South China Morning Post (SCMP) suggest that the current heat wave has affected over 900 million people in more than 17 provinces. It is also thought to have impacted an estimated 2.2 million hectares of agricultural land. That impact has been felt primarily in the provinces of Sichuan, Hubei, Hebei, Jiangxi, and Anhui. As a result, this has posed a threat to China’s water, energy, and food security.

However, climate change-related extreme weather events are only one of China’s many water challenges. China faces enormous water quality, quality and spatiotemporal distribution challenges. Demand for freshwater has quickly increased due to rapid industrialisation, urbanisation, and climate change impacts. Forecasts project that by 2030, China’s water demand will surpass 800 billion cubic meters. However, China’s supply is severely undermined by worsening factors of water scarcity, urbanisation, population growth, pollution, and competing water demands.

Challenges facing China

One of the significant challenges faced by China is the country’s highly uneven water distribution. China holds under 6 per cent of the world’s water resources. It is one of the top five countries in terms of per capita freshwater resources. However, China faces severe water shortages due to insufficient water resources that are unevenly distributed. Water-abundant southern China is prone to severe floods.

In contrast, northern China is arid and prone to severe water shortages while being the country’s agricultural centre. Estimates suggest that north China holds a mere 4 per cent of the country’s water resources. It is supposed to sustain 25 per cent of the country’s population and 27 per cent of the national gross domestic product.

Groundwater overuse

China’s decades-long over-reliance further compounds these concerns on groundwater. It has been brought on by high water demand for socioeconomic development, agricultural irrigation, and population growth. Estimates suggest that approximately 70 per cent of the country’s population relies on groundwater as their primary drinking water resource. Groundwater is also used to irrigate 40 per cent of China’s total farmland. In northern China, groundwater accounts for 50 per cent of industrial water usage. Thirty-three per cent of irrigated water and 65 per cent of domestic water usage in northern China comes from groundwater.

Groundwater exploitation has resulted in significant drops in aquifer levels throughout the country. Due to over-exploitation and inefficient consumption, China’s water resources are quickly decreasing. The North China Aquifer provides a telling example. The North China Aquifer is one of the world’s most overexploited groundwater resources. It is located in the North China Plain. That is one of the world’s most densely populated areas and China’s economic, economic, and cultural centre.

This region additionally plays an important role in China’s food security. It produces an estimated 13 per cent of agricultural production, including 20 per cent of the country’s total annual crop production. Much of the shallow aquifer has declined by 20 meters due to intensive farming practices and expanded irrigation systems. Some areas have experienced decreases of more than 40 meters.

Pollution problems

China’s existing water resources are heavily polluted. A recent publication found that pollution remains the most significant environmental health threat for premature deaths and diseases worldwide. Water pollution accounts for 1.4 million deaths. Decades of strong economic growth, rapid industrialisation and development, and industrial farming practices have resulted in heavily polluted water throughout China. That is primarily due to limited environmental concerns and high agricultural runoff.

It has impacted the environment and society, including human health, cultivated land, and river quality. Recent estimates suggest more than 80 per cent of China’s cities are severely polluted due to household, industrial, municipal, and agricultural sources. A 2016 government-led study in China found that pollutants significantly contaminate an estimated 80 per cent of China’s groundwater quality.

Responses to the National Water Challenges

China’s approach to water management has traditionally been engineering-focused, as shown by the construction of many inter-basin transfer projects such as the South-North Water Transfer Project and numerous hydropower dams such as the Three Gorges Dam. Recent project proposals such as the enormous Red Flag River Water Transfer Project (Red Flag River), the “super” dam upstream of the Brahmaputra, and the robot-built 3D printed dam, as well as China’s ambitious climate change goals, suggest that this approach will continue in the future. The Chinese government has also implemented other policy responses to its national water challenges.

Citizen science is another way China addresses water challenges, enabling residents to play a greater role in environmental monitoring and protection. For instance, the “Black and Smelly Waters App,” launched in 2016 by the national housing and environment ministries, allows users to report polluted urban water sites and has been moderately successful. Citizen science is supported by other measures, including websites and social media provided for environmental protection agencies in various provinces and technological developments, including automated water monitoring systems (for wastewater and purification of drinking water), water quality applications, and prepaid smart water systems.

Alternative approaches in China

Beijing is tackling China’s water challenges through the River (Lake) Chief System (RCS). In 2016, the central government required the full establishment of the RCS across the country. It sought to improve water quality and overcome the “nine dragons ruling the waters.” That was a reference to divided responsibilities stretching across several government agencies, often considered the cause of poor results in water governance in China. Under this system, top officials at various levels of government are appointed as lake or river chiefs with their jurisdictions. By the end of 2018, this system had been implemented throughout China. There are over 300,000 river chiefs at various levels. China’s top-down target responsibility system manages its performance in meeting water pollution and related objectives. Since the implementation of the RCS, the number of water bodies with improved water quality has grown.

Green solutions sought out

Beijing has demonstrated interest in “green” solutions through the sponge city initiative. Seeking to harness the benefits of nature-based solutions, the sponge city approach brings together “blue systems” and “green spaces” (such as wetlands) as part of “grey” infrastructure (such as water recycling initiatives). The overarching aim of sponge cities is to create Chinese “eco-cities” that support the local urban water cycle. They would control and reduce flooding, water scarcity, and water pollution. They would strengthen local urban resilience, especially against the growing frequency and intensity of climate change-induced extreme weather events. Since 2014, the sponge city concept has been implemented in 30 major cities, including Shanghai and Beijing. By 2030, the Chinese government aims for 80 per cent of its urban areas to absorb and reuse water.

Water pollution and related challenges could cause political and social turmoil. In response, the Chinese government has implemented more than 130 policies to address surface water quality and aquatic environment degradation concerns. That includes as part of the 12th Five-Year Plan (2010-2015), the State Council’s Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Water Pollution (Water Ten Plan), and five-year plans for implementing environmental protection.

River specific laws and policies

In recent years, Beijing has implemented laws to protect rivers from further degradation. Although the central Chinese government has previously acknowledged these concerns in reports and environmental policies (e.g., its “ecological red lines“ policy to balance environmental and ecological protection and economic growth) and regulations (e.g. the fishing ban), they have generally been subject to poor coordination, application, and enforcement. In March 2021, the new Yangtze River Protection Law (YRPL) was enacted to protect the Yangtze River. The YRPL aims to safeguard China’s longest river by strengthening its ecological protection and restoration and promoting the efficient use of its water resources, suggesting that Beijing is shifting its priorities regarding rivers and environmental conservation.

This is China’s first legislation on a specific river basin and, as such, demonstrates a significant milestone in the CCP’s legislation on ecological protection and restoration. The YRPL seeks to strengthen oversight and prevent and control water pollution in the river basin. They seek to solve these challenges by addressing current institutions’ inability to protect the river. This law can not only strengthen China’s “ecological civilisation “ and green development policies but also lead to the universal implementation of similar protection laws for other rivers in China.

Adapting to Climate Change Impacts

However, these approaches, particularly the traditional engineering-focused approach, are not without their challenges. As China faces severe climate change impacts due to global warming, water is one of the most vulnerable sectors and will be hit the hardest. Like the rest of the world, China is under growing threats from climate change impacts such as rising sea levels. According to China’s National Climate Center, the country’s sea levels and average temperature have increased faster than the global average, putting coastal cities such as Shanghai at risk of being submerged in the future. At the same time, China’s glaciers will continue to melt rapidly, likely resulting in more floods.

Flooding Risk

China is also facing threats from the growing frequency and intensity of climate change-induced extreme weather events such as severe flooding and droughts, which cost China over $47 billion annually. Estimates suggest that 1 per cent of China’s gross domestic product (GDP) is lost annually due to flooding impact, causing damage to agricultural production, infrastructure, and human lives. Over 650 Chinese cities are subject to flood risks. In July 2021, Henan province faced a “once in a thousand years” rainstorm, resulting in nearly 400 deaths and $12.7 billion in property damage. In 2020, the water levels in southern China, a region already prone to flooding, became “dangerously high,” with 443 rivers throughout the country flooding, of which 33 rivers rose to the highest levels on record. An estimated 38 million people across 27 provinces were affected by the flooding.

Drought Risk

Additionally, droughts have grown in intensity and frequency over the past few decades. This has caused enormous damage to agricultural production, human health, and infrastructure, impacting water security and agricultural production, as emphasised by the 2022 United Nations (UN) report “Drought in Numbers.” Another recent study analysed drought-related losses in 31 Chinese provinces and cities from 1949 to 2017, finding that drought affected approximately one-sixth of China’s arable land. According to the study, corn and wheat were among the worst-hit crops in areas including Sichuan, Shandong, and Inner Mongolia. The severe impacts of previous droughts in China are also well-established.

Financial costs of droughts and climate change in China

The socioeconomic and humanitarian costs of the ongoing Yangtze River drought are yet to be officially declared. The impacts of previous droughts are known. For instance, the 2009 nationwide drought affected 60 million people and caused damage to an estimated 6.5 million hectares of land throughout the country. Similarly, at the height of the Yangtze River Basin drought in 2011, 3.5 million people were left with minimal drinking water. Elsewhere, China’s major southern cities, such as Shenzhen, warned of severe water shortages in late 2021 and sought to implement water restrictions due to the East River’s most severe drought in decades.

In China, the annual costs of droughts between 1949 to 2017 averaged $7 billion. However, with a global temperature increase of 1.5 C, this figure could rise to $47 billion. That figure could rise to $84 billion annually if there is a global temperature increase of 2 C. It would also cause significant agricultural and socioeconomic consequences.

Responses to climate change and water quality

The Chinese government has undertaken various responses to overcome the major water quality, quantity, and unequal distribution issues. These responses include laws, policies, digital technologies, citizen science, and the creation of a river chief system. These have been undertaken in conjunction with the traditional infrastructure-focused approach. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen to what extent these approaches to the national water concerns will succeed.

One of the biggest challenges threatening these responses is climate change-related extreme weather events. As the ongoing Yangtze River drought demonstrates, the cost is enormous. Such events are expected to increase in frequency, intensity, and duration combined with the existing national water concerns. This will continue to threaten China’s policy responses to its water challenges.

Beijing may need to consider additional approaches to target the demand side of water management on a national scale. They will also need to make (greater) use of alternative water supplies for both potable and non-potable use.

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