The Thirsty Dragon: Demand Reduction Efforts In China

Two articles examining China’s impending freshwater scarcity crisis and the impact of some nascent demand reduction efforts.  First, courtesy of The Guardian, is a look at the current status of the South-North Diversion Project:

…More than twice as expensive as the Three Gorges Dam and three times longer than the railway to Tibet, the 50-year, $62bn (£40.67bn) South-North Water Diversion Scheme aims to channel a greater volume than the Thames along three channels – each more than 600 miles long – from the moist Yangtze basin up to the dry lands above the Yellow river.

…The project has sparked so many ecological, financial and political concerns that government advisers are calling for the plan to be delayed and, possibly, curtailed, raising the possibility that this could prove a mega-project too far even for China. First proposed in 1962, the scheme was approved by Mao Zedong, who said it was fine for the south to “lend a little water”, but until recently the government has not had the money or technical ability to go ahead.

In the north, the disparity between supply and demand is evident across swaths of land that rely on the overworked and heavily polluted Yellow. China’s second-biggest river accounts for 2% of the country’s run-off, yet irrigates 15% of the crops and supplies water to 140 million people, about 12% of the population.

…Reducing demand has been difficult. At the control centre of the Yellow River Conservancy Commission in Zhengzhou, water allocations are displayed on a wall-sized screen. Nine provinces share the water. Proportions have been fixed since 1987 based on an over-optimistic estimate that annual run-off is 58bn cubic metres. This year, the volume is forecast to be less than 50bn cubic metres. In 2003, it fell below 45bn. Provinces are supposed to equally share the shortfall. Yet Ningxia, Inner Mongolia and Shandong take more than 1bn cubic metres of water above allocation every year without permission.

…This demand-side solution faces fierce opposition. No province wants a cut in water supplies when they all want to boost industry and agriculture. The latter is the biggest drain on the river, accounting for 90% of diverted water. Yu and his colleagues are dispatched to sluice gates during times of drought.

…Faced by such obstacles in reducing demand, the government is pressing ahead with measures to increase supply. Its primary response is the diversion scheme, approved by Hu Jintao – a hydro-engineering graduate – in 2002.

A year after the first leg was supposed to be complete, all three routes have hit snags. The eastern leg, along the Grand canal, was supposed to be easiest to finish, but pollution in this heavily industrialised region is so great that water treatment is prohibitively expensive. Tianjin reportedly prefers to build desalination plants.

The western leg has been suspended over concerns about the political and economic cost of diverting water from the Yangtze to the Yellow, high on the Tibet-Qinghai plateau. The central route also faces delays over environmental and compensation concerns. About 300,000 people will have to be relocated and swaths of farmland cleared.”

The second article, courtesy of Columbia’s Earth Institute, looks the planned increase in water prices as one means to help regulate demand.  As the reports notes:

“…The Chinese capital of Beijing will raise water prices this year as an attempt to conserve its scarce water supply. Cheng Jing, the head of Beijing’s water-resources bureau, announced on May 10th the city would raise water prices within the next two months. This price hike will be the fifth one since 2001 in a bid to promote conservation.

According to the latest United Nations water report, China lists among the countries with the highest groundwater uses in the world. It withdraws between 50 and 200 cubic kilometers annually. Beijing, the capital city, is facing water limits, heightened by its fast pace of industrialization, wasteful irrigation projects and pollution of the region’s underground water tables. But Beijing is now under even more pressure to conserve its water supply due to the delay of a huge and ambitious south-north Water Transfer Project. The plan is to divert 1 billion cubic meters (264 U.S. gallons) of clean water each year from the Yangtze River. However, the project, expected to be completed next year (2010), is delayed until 2014. The reason for the delay is thought to be related to the redistribution of water and relocation of residents along the 1,400 km channel that will link Central China’s Hubei province with Beijing, Tianjin and neighboring provinces. Following news of the delay, policymakers are drawing up plans to conserve water in Beijing, including theraising of water prices for domestic and commercial users. Other water-scarce cities, including Shanghai and Shenyang, have recently decided to put a higher price tag on clean water.

As many analysts in China have said, the days of cheap water are over, and this water price hike has been expected. “The current prices are not sustainable for a water-scarce city like Beijing,” said Professor Wang Dangxian, a researcher with the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research. According to him,water costs Beijing residents only about one-fifth of the amount paid by residents of the world’s other major cities. Wang Hao, Director of the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research, feels water prices in the capital should be at least three times higher than prices now: “The price does not reflect the current situation of the severe water shortage plaguing the country, leading to water wastage and pollution,” Hu Siyi, Vice Minister of Water Resources, said. However, water pricing alone cannot be enough to solve all water scarcity problems in China. “Simply raising water price cannot solve the water shortage problem in the long run. The government should encourage innovation in water conservation, reuse and recycle,” Ma Jun, Director of Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, told China Daily.”

This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 26th, 2009 at 11:41 am and is filed under China, Yangtze River, Yellow River.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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