The Thirsty Dragon: China’s Urban Billion Grapple With Diminishing Water Resources, Scarcity And Pollution

Via The City Fix, a report on China’s water challenge:

Water scarcity in China is exacerbated by the demands of growing cities.

China’s Urban Billion is a series of blogs exploring China’s urbanization process. Xiaomei Tan guides TheCityFix readers through China’s opportunities and challenges as it transforms into an urbanized society. She examines the urbanization process as it relates to governance, the private and public sectors, and the economy.

As China’s cities grow, the availability of water will be a constraint. China’s available water per capita is only one-third of the global average. This is exacerbated by the fact that China’s water resources are unevenly distributed – water availability in the northern region is about one-sixth the availability in the south. Urbanization has greatly aggravated water scarcity, as urban residents, on average, consume more water than their counterparts in rural areas.

Water Scarcity

Currently, nearly two-thirds of Chinese cities face water shortage issues. Among them, 110 cities are especially thirsty. Beijing, the capital city, has experienced three water shortage crises since 1949. In 2011, Beijing’s per capita water consumption was only 107 cubic meters, about 1/5 of the global average. Although a series of measures have been taken, including overexploitation of groundwater, utilizing the Miyun Reservoir’s inventory, and water recycling, Beijing will still face a water gap of 660 million cubic meters by 2014.

To meet increasing water demand, many cities, especially cities in Northern China have to overdraw groundwater, which leads to subsidence of land and saltwater intrusion in coastal areas.

Data source: China Environment Statistics Yearbook 2010

China’s high water intensity further exacerbates the water shortage issue. Water intensity is a measure of cubic meters of water used per unit of value added by economic activity. Currently, China’s water consumption per unit of GDP is five times the global average. The water leakage rate in many cities’ distribution networks and water appliances is as high as 20%. The industrial water recycling rate is only 60%, compared to 85% in developed countries. What is worse is that China’s water efficiency varies significantly. In water-scarce western cities, the water efficiency rate is only 0.4, compared to 0.8 in water-abundant eastern cities. This means western cities use double amount of water for per unit of value added by economic activity, compared to eastern cities.

Water Pollution

In addition to water scarcity, water pollution in urban areas is getting worse. In Elizabeth Economy’s book, The River Runs Black, she exposes the terrifying state of China’s rivers. “More than 75% of the water in rivers flowing through China’s urban area is unsuitable for drinking or fishing. Only 6 of China’s 27 largest cities’ drinking water supply meet State standards. … and many urban river sections and some large freshwater lakes are so polluted that they cannot even be used for irrigation,” she writes.  Wastewater treatment continues to be an issue. Although 1,000 wastewater plants were built between 2000 and 2006, only about half of the discharges from municipal sources are treated. This is partially due to inadequate wastewater collection facilities, and partially because revenue collected from customers are transferred to the general city budget and not used to ensure that treatment plants have the resources needed to operate adequately.

Data source: China Environment Statistics Yearbook 2010.

Water Policy

China’s 12th Five Year Plan has taken the water quality issue seriously. It specifies two targets for improvement: raising the urban sewage treatment rate and the life garbage treatment rate to 85% and 80% respectively. The plan also addresses solutions to the water shortage issue. In order to supply 40 billion cubic meters of water annually, it proposes to take better advantage of rainwater and cloud water and improve the infrastructure for the hydrology and water resources management.

On the water technology front, China is looking into a suite of new options: nanotechnology in filtration, membrane chemistry, seawater desalination, and smart monitoring. The technology of desalination, especially, has been used in several coastal cities. Tianjin already built 4 desalination plants with a total capacity of 220 thousand tons per day in 2012. Qingdao, another coastal city, is currently building China’s largest desalination plant, with a daily capacity of 100 thousand tons. According to the 12th Five Year Plan for Desalination Technology Development, China will commercialize desalination technology by 2015. By then, 20 cities will be equipped with desalination plants, with a daily capacity of 2.2 to 2.6 million tons.

In spite of holding much promise for China’s future water supply, desalination is extremely energy intensive: around 4 kilowatt hours of energy for every cubic meter of water, about 10 times of the energy intensity seen in other clean water production. Therefore, for energy-scarce coastal cities, desalination is not the best solution.

The strong linkage between water and energy suggests that China’s growing cities will face resource pressure on more than one front.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 17th, 2013 at 6:37 pm and is filed under China.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

Comments are closed.

© 2023 Water Politics LLC .  'Water Politics', 'Water. Politics. Life', and 'Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty World' are service marks of Water Politics LLC.