The Thirsty Dragon: Drying Up Quickly

An interesting post by Ying Jia on China’s dwindling water supply.  As the article notes:

“….Water scarcity is largely a product of China’s wasteful style of economic growth. A World Bank research study showed that in the period 2001-2005, 54 percent of China’s seven main rivers were deemed unsafe for human consumption (World Bank). The dual problems of water scarcity and water pollution have serious implications for China’s economy, human health and even global prosperity if it continues to be ignored. Although the Chinese government has recognized the seriousness of water degradation, the top-down measures it has adopted remained internally flawed. Instead, genuine improvement in the water crisis can only come about from revolutionary bottom-up political and economic reforms and with the empowerment of international government organizations and local individuals.

China is home to the world’s fourth-largest freshwater resources after Brazil, Russia and Canada, but its per capita water resource availability is the lowest (World Resources Institute). In comparison to other countries, China’s per capita naturally available water per annum is one-third of the average of developing countries (7,762 cubic meters/person), one-fourth of the world average (8,549 cubic meters/person), and almost one-fifth of the United States average (10,332 cubic meters/person) (Shalizi). The severe regional water imbalance where four-fifths of the country’s water supply is concentrated in the south, served to double burden the North China Plain, which is the most populous region of China. The availability of water in the north is a quarter of the south, and therefore according to the United Nations definition, is therefore qualified as a region of water scarcity. Increasing demand led to higher water consumption where studies show that in 2004-2005, the number jumped by 6.6 percent (Economy). According to a leading Chinese water expert, Ma Jun, several cities near Beijing and Tianjin in the northeastern region of China could possibly run out of water in five to seven years.

The wasteful ways of the nation also bear an enormous responsibility. China’s agricultural sector uses 66 percent of China’s total water consumption, mostly for irrigation purposes, but about half of the water is wasted due to leaky pipes (Turner). The World Resources Institute found that Chinese industries generally use 10-20 percent more water than their counterparts in developed countries to spur growth. This inefficiency has long term dire consequences for severe water shortages. As the quality of life has improved since China’s reform and opening, rapid urbanization has led to larger consumption of water, where city dwellers take lengthy showers, use washing machines and dishwashers and purchase homes with lawns that need to be watered (Economy). This is the very cost of China’s economic boom.

As population pressures are putting a toll on China’s surface water, there is a growing reliance to use the groundwater supply, especially in the dry North. Groundwater is currently depleting at a faster rate than its replenishing rate, where the mining of aquifers is needed to compensate for the increasing scarcity. The water table is therefore falling about one meter a year and some city wells has to descend more than 600 feet to reach clean water (Kahn). Hydrologists said that the mining of aquifers are dangerous, because there would virtually be no insurance for the population at times of drought. This ultimately is compromising the sustainability of water resources for future generations.

The hazards of water pollution are equally daunting and served to further aggravate the water shortage crisis. Pollution is endangering the water supplies of China, in which the major culprits are agricultural runoff, inefficient industrial and municipal wastewater treatment and hazardous waste sites. According to the China’s 2005 State Environmental Protection Administration annual report, 70% of China’s main watersheds are contaminated (Shalizi). 90 percent of the aquifers in Chinese cities are likewise polluted. Staggering figures claims that 75 percent of river water running through urban areas is unsuitable for drinking and fishing, causing nearly 700 million people to drink water contaminated with human and animal waste (Economy).

The sources of pollution can be divided in rural and urban areas. A contributing factor to rural water pollution stem from China’s national security strategy to protect its vulnerability from the global market by maintaining subsistence in agricultural production. The production of grain, a staple of Chinese diets, is encouraged by the Chinese Communist Party for self-sufficiency to fend off fears of dependence on imports. But grain requires large amounts of underground water in the North China Plain, which already is used to produce half of the country’s wheat (Yardley). Even as scientists have proposed restrictions for limiting farming to protect endangered aquifers, the Chinese government is hesitant to threaten the livelihoods of millions of farmers and cause a spike in the international grain prices.

Chinese farmers use a lot of different pesticides in farming. Nutrient runoff causes eutrophication, a process that accelerates the aging of lakes and rivers caused by contaminants from urban sewage, agricultural and industrial waste, which ultimately robs the water of dissolved oxygen vital to aquatic life. Pesticide runoff, which are highly toxic and contain high-residue chemicals are caused by factories dumping their waste into waters. A symbol of this perpetual crisis is Lake Tai, a lake in eastern China’s Jiangsu Province that was known as China’s ancient “land of rice and fish,” where it was famous for an abundance of white shrimp, whitebait and whitefish (Yardley). Since China’s industrialization, the legendary lake has been transformed into a buildup site where 2,800 chemical factories that were constructed around it began dumping chemical waste along with urban sewage into its waters. In the spring of 2007, the problem culminated in a crisis where bright green pond scum coated with a fetid algal coating appeared in the giant lake, and eventually threatening a nearby city of 2.3 million residents that depended on the lake for drinking water. This story made the top headlines in China and has forced officials to directly react to increasing social unrest. Dumping of industrial wastes into nearby bodies of water is common to all regions in China as these practices are largely uncontrolled and unaccounted by current government management programs.

The lack of effective wastewater treatment systems in cities was the negative byproduct of China’s rise, where infrastructural development and relentless economic growth were the dominant focus in the last several decades. As the population increased in urban areas, more industrial activities therefore followed. Raw sewage is dumped daily into local streambeds and industrial waste from factories in the cities is often untreated. The World Health Organization reported that in the year 2002, the discharge of industrial wastewater (21 billion tons) and domestic sewage (23 billion tons) totaled 44 billion tons, marking a 1.5 percent increase over the previous year. Statistics show that only a staggering number of six of China’s 27 largest cities have drinking water that meets state standards. Borrowing a term from the New York Times, China is indeed “choking on its growth,” rapidly.

China’s epic environmental crisis has huge economic implications that would inevitably challenge the continuation of the Chinese economic miracle if it is not addressed. Water pollution is a burden on the economy as a whole and therefore has pushed the government to recognize the severity of the problem. According to several studies conducted inside and outside of China, the environmental degradation and pollution cost the Chinese economy between 8 percent and 12 percent of their gross domestic product annually (Economy). The Chinese state media has also published results of studies on the costs of water pollution, a total of $35.8 billion one year (Xinhua).

The Chinese rely heavily on agricultural production for subsistence. As mentioned earlier, the Chinese Communist Party is leery of depending on imports to feed its people because it will pose a structural vulnerability to the state. Therefore, agricultural self-sufficiency is a must. But as China’s waterways have become increasingly polluted and water shortages are burdening the country, farmers have relied on readily available and abundant wastewater to irrigate crops. A World Bank study found that in the year 2003, wastewater irrigation areas totaled about 4.05 hectares (World Bank). Use of polluted water to irrigate crops affects agricultural production where the quality and the quantity of output are severely lessened. Consumer prices will therefore be raised in response to the crop shortage and demand. The reduction of quality originates from the excess of pollutants, such as heavy or toxic substances in wastewater, which makes the crop unsuitable for human consumption; and secondly, the water replaces essential vitamins with substandard nutritional quality. For instance, wheat of poor quality produces less flour and vegetables of similar qualities would have an unpleasant taste. Field experiments in this area reported that suspended substances in the wastewater often times affect soil porosity and agro-ecological environments, which destroy soil microorganisms and soil structure that are vital in the agricultural production process. Less agricultural production causes economic losses and scarcity. Economic losses in 2003 were reported to be about 6.7 billion yuan (Chinese currency) due to inedible crops because of its high pollution levels. The multiple causal factors: population pressures that create high demand, water shortages due to water pollution and dense populations, and the push for relentless economic growth, ultimately foreshadow a gloomy outlook for China’s future if these problems are not addressed more directly.

Water pollution has also spread to marine fisheries and inland waters fisheries, thereby destroying the livelihoods of many fishermen. Marine fisheries in China include rivers, lakes, reservoirs and estuaries (World Bank). For many years, seafood has become a staple of the Chinese diet where domestic consumption is expected to rise forty percent by 2020 (Ellis). China is currently the world’s biggest producer and exporter of seafood, and also the fastest growing supplier to the United States (Barboza). Many of these rivers contain water high in toxicity due to untreated industrial discharge from factories and municipal dumping. Water supplies contaminated by sewage, industrial waste and agricultural runoff that includes pesticides are not uncommon. As China continues to engage in a wasteful rollicking economic expansion, bodies of waters are being contaminated with pollutants that would eventually wipe out much of the fisheries. Fisherman and the industry are faced with the loss of fishery production caused by the inability to reutilize the natural fisheries. The degradation of water quality has prompted the European Union and Japan in recent years to issue temporary bans on Chinese seafood because of the residues of illegal drugs present in the fish. In the past year, the United States has also issued blockages of several types of fish imported from China after inspectors found traces of banned veterinary drugs that are linked to cancer in the fish (Barboza). The economic losses from losing these markets over food safety are large setbacks for the reputation of China as well as the pockets of Chinese fish farm owners.

As China dries up from its polluted waterways, the public health of its citizens is reeling. Water is vital to the human body and also serves as a powerful medium in the spread of diseases. According to the China National Health Survey in 2003, two-thirds of China’s rural population (500 million people) does not have access to clean pipe water. Studies have shown that lack of availability to clean water lead to high rates of diarrheal diseases, particularly for children under the age of five and high cancer rates. Even with access to pipe water, it is not guaranteed that there is no health risk involved, given that most of the pipe water are only subject to partial treatment, either it be sedimentation or disinfection. Water pollutants, according to the research done by the World Bank, have categorized water pollutants in two categories: biological pollutants and chemical pollutants. Biological pollutants include microorganisms that cause infectious hepatitis A or E, dysentery, typhoid fever, cholera and diarrhea. Chemical pollutants contain inorganic substances such as high levels of nitrates and mercury that can lead to acute levels of poisoning and chronic health effects such as liver cancer. The leading cause of death among children under the age of five is gastrointestinal cancer, where contaminated drinking water is responsible for the deaths. Prolonged and chronic exposure to bad water quality is detrimental to human health. Western rural areas in China are often more susceptible to infectious waterborne diseases as the regions are usually less developed. In 2006, China’s State Environmental Protection Agency released a survey that revealed over half of China’s 21,000 chemical plants are located along two of its most important rivers, the Yellow and Yangtze. A higher trend of tumors, cancer, spontaneous abortions and diminished IQs were reported by studies from Chinese water non-governmental organizations, Chinese and international news media and sometimes the Ministry of Health, among the populations living near polluted rivers and lakes (Turner).

Unlike popular perception of the government’s lack of attention towards the grim environmental legacies, the Chinese government, has in fact recognized the severity of the degradation of water quality in its country and set up breathtaking targets to “inject a new urgency into their rhetoric concerning the need to protect the country’s environment” (Economy). But as Elizabeth Economy, an environmental specialist on China pointed out, Chinese leaders have a tendency for rhetoric. Recognition is not enough. The real problem though still remains: the translation of rhetoric into strategy. For instance, Beijing has promised in 2001 to hold a “green Olympics” in 2008 and has promised to provide safe tap water to the entire city during the Games, but the government has failed to deliver what they promised, and eventually only the residents of the Olympic Village managed to get these earlier promises. China’s State Environmental Protection Agency has adopted new laws, such as the Environmental Impact Assessment Law, which required local officials to release information about environmental disasters, pollution statistics and names of polluters to the public. Though like many of China’s toothless government ministries, the SEPA has little man power, with barely 300 full-time professional staff in Beijing and only a few hundred employees around the country compared to the United States Environmental Protection Agency of almost 9,000 in Washington D.C. alone (Economy). Therefore, the Chinese SEPA is hindered by its own limits to enforce environmental regulation effectively. For instance, the SEPA has placed water protection as a priority in the 10th and 11th Five-Year Plans, but eventually due to the inefficiency of the governance system, little was done to mitigate pollution from China’s lakes and rivers.

The decentralized nature of China’s governance system is another problem in correcting its pollution crisis. Local officials were often given the authority to implement environmental regulations under the directions from the top, but often times, self-interest override orders. Local bureaucrats in towns and villages frequently have personal stakes in pushing for regulation because they have financial shares in factories. The channels of global transaction that opened after 1978 helped form a new “political economy” in China, one that “reconstituted the incentives to which bureaucrats, local officials, ordinary citizens, enterprise managers, collectivities, and foreign investors responded” (Zweig). Local officials who are responsible for monitoring and controlling these new foreign and global exchanges of goods will continue to facilitate its growth and will not let environmental policies slow down the growth process. Wastewater treatment or water-conservation efforts will simply obstruct their money-making. Thus, many do not enforce the environmental policies in their towns or villages and choose to ignore these problems. Fines for pollution is also set really low, where many factory managers often choose to pay them rather than adopt environmental regulations. Cases of corruption in local governments are not uncommon in China, largely due to governing difficulties and the internal flaws of decentralized nature of the system. The size of the country and Beijing’s perpetual touts for faster growth further compounds the severity of the problem.

Despite the feeling of urgency to reform environmental policy in China, many Chinese leaders and experts remain adamant for real change. Ren Yong, a climate expert at the Center for Environmental and Economy in Beijing, clearly pointed out, “[t]ypically, industrial countries deal with green problems when they are rich. We have to deal with them while we are still poor. There is no model for us to follow” (Yardley). Yong’s comment highlighted the argument that the Chinese leaders have always put forth. China is still a developing country and therefore regulations would curtail further economic development. By implementing restrictions, farmers would become unemployed if demands for growth were slowed and factories would also be shut. High unemployment rates would incite social unrest and cause political and social instability. Chinese leaders have often proposed that limitations in its development would in turn have negative repercussions to their people, who rely on China’s internationalization to sustain their own lives.

Though it is recognized that China remains a developing country at this stage, far greater dire consequences lie ahead including long term health costs for the people affected by the toxic waters, economic losses due to international bans on Chinese crops and seafood contaminated by pollutants and increasing rates of mortality. Long term health and economic implications far outweigh present losses. China must be able to reconcile economic growth with environmental protection. The corrupt nature of the political system and the inadequate top-down processes are burdening China’s water resources and its people. Reform is needed where bottom-up processes should be the dominant strategy. Right incentives need to be given to factory owners and local officials to facilitate environmental reforms.

The force with the most power to incite environmental change is China’s homegrown environmental activities and the local “water warriors” (Turner). The Chinese government should have a healthy, cooperative relationship with these groups and not just ignorantly clamp down on movements. The need for transparency is a precinct to effective environmental protection because it would offer accountability. The media should be able to access and publish this information, largely to educate and create awareness for this threatening issue. China is slowing making strides in this area when the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based environmental organization directed by water researcher and activist, Ma Jun, launched China’s first online public database on water pollution. This digital map can trace and monitor pollution discharges and survey water quality. This is only the beginning step however, as the state media have often times forbid the broadcasting of what the Chinese state classifies as sensitive material that can potentially incite social unrest to the public.”

The costs of inaction to China’s environmental crisis are detrimental. The increasing burdens on public health are inciting social discontent compounded by the government’s inability to create any obvious changes. Utilizing non-governmental organizations as effective watchdogs and increasing the transparency of the media outlets can help pacify, at least to some extent, the magnitude of unrest that are slowly brewing in the cracks of the iron rule under the Chinese Communist Party. Living up to its targets is also a reputable demonstration of China’s responsibility as a leader in global affairs. The government must be able to overlook the short term losses and weigh the advantages of the long term devotion to environmental policy reforms. Both the Chinese economic legend and the health of 1.3 billion Chinese people are counting on this very change.”

This entry was posted on Sunday, December 14th, 2008 at 4:11 pm 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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