China’s water crisis

17 Apr

A country home of 20% of the world’s population is bound to have problems acquiring significant resources to satisfy the population’s needs. Chinas water availability is causing significant problems now, and most certainly for the future. The forecast of water security in China is currently bleak. Demand is reaching new highs, and by 2030, it is expected that water may be more contested than energy and minerals. This issue is further impounded by the location of the population in China. 46.5% live in the North, but this is home to just 19.6% of the countries water resources. China has been listed as one of 13 countries that are most water poor, and this looks set to worsen unless changes are made.

China has never fully been water secure, but it also hasn’t had to be. A previously agriculturally orientated nation, now industrialised and urbanised has caused significant problems, not just in terms of usage, but also pollution. New and old pollutants interacting with each other have provided new, currently untreatable strains, rendering large volumes of water unusable. Water quality has decreased to only 27% safe, leading 300 million people without access to safe drinking water. These water pollution issues used to be quarantined to local parts of rivers, and were therefore easily avoidable, but now they have expanded to entire basins, causing national issues. Only 56% of municipal sewage is treated, contaminating usable water further, so currently, only 40% of river sections have usable water. Chinas rapid economic growth and urbanisation has its downfalls here, with incorrect infrastructure being in place to cope with the added demands in urban regions. Industrial water used increased from 10% 1980 to 23.2% 2006, a drastic increase, adding to reasons for water scarcity.  Urbanisation has increased the flow of untreated wastewater discharges, which has resulted in water quality not improving since the 1990’s, a clear issue which needs addressing.

China’s water efficiency does not match that of a developed country. Industrial water recycling rate is only 40% compared to developed countries averaging 80%. Furthermore, water loss from leaks in supply pipelines are 20%, 3x that of developed countries. However, the most criminal of water loss remains in agriculture. Only about 50% of water from canals and irrigation systems are delivered to the fields, and then only 40% of water withdrawals are used on farmer’s crops. Agriculture is the main water use in China, utilising 60% of all water. If this waste water could be significantly reduced, then so would China’s water scarcity.

There are potential global implications of China’s water crisis. China uses 9% of the worlds land to feed 22% of the world’s population. Should China’s water reserves continue to severely decrease, then this could have global implications upon food production. Cost of production will increase, increasing global food prices. Furthermore, global warming and climate change are also appearing to exacerbate the situation. Water losses from floods and droughts have increased year by year, and with global warming comes an increase of severe weather events, further inciting pessimism upon Chinas water scarcity. 

Another main concern for the Chinese is the location of water, and the location of people. The Yangtze in the South of China accounts for 80.4% of the nation’s naturally available water, but only 53.5% of its population, 35.2% of its arable land, and 54.8% of the nations GDP. In contrast, Northern China contains 19.6% of the countries water resources, but 46.5% of its population, 64.8% arable land, and 45.2% of the GDP. Having significantly more arable land in the region with much less water is unfortunate, but there are solutions that have been set up to solve this:

The South-to-North transfer has been a topic of discussion for the past 50 years. The aim is to transfer water from the Yangtze river to the North of China via three paths, each stretching over 1000km. This scheme was put into action in 2002, and aims to transfer 44.8 billion m3 of water per annum. This scheme is not set to be fully operational till 2050, but if it was successful, it could have significantly positive impacts upon China’s future. This scheme does come with its negatives. Apart from the obvious concern of money, come many environmental issues. Firstly, there is the prospect of invasions of alien species to the North of China. Species and disease migration such as schistomosomiasis could be destructive for the north through competition. Furthermore, large amounts of industrial waste are released in the eastern passage, and it also passes through inadequate sewage facilities, demining the water quality. Water quality is another major concern, with the prospect that water quality will decline along the canals, potentially reducing the use for the water arriving in the North. The potential for success does outweigh these mentioned negatives, but China have also set up additional plans:

Desalinisation plants allow modern technology to reduce salt levels in sea water, thus making sea water useable. China has many small desalinisation plants, but the development of a £1.1 billion plant in Tianjin shows the faith China are putting into this prospect. Desalinisation plants do come with their problems. They are very expensive, and finding the finance for them is relatively difficult due to success rates. The money mainly comes from corporate companies or public investment, which explains why most plants are relatively small. However, with this £1.1 billion project comes a lot of benefit, along with significant risk.

If these aforementioned projects succeed, then China will hopefully overcome its water scarcity. There are also numerous everyday water saving factors that China need to address – mainly the efficiency of water, and recycling industrial water – which should aid China’s water recovery. Recent price increases in the cost of domestic water have also given awareness to the public usage, and therefore the citizens of China will also be looking to cut down on personal water usage.



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Can the sea solve China’s water crisis? [Accessed 16/04/13]

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China heading towards an unavoidable water crisis (2012) [Accessed 15/04/13]

Liu S and Persson K (2013) Review and prospects of desalination as a water supply methodin China, Desalination and Water Treatment, 1-11

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Water shortages in China (2012) [Accessed 14/04/13]

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2 Responses to “China’s water crisis”

  1. jc35g10 April 17, 2013 at 1:29 pm #

    Air pollution, and its shocking statistics, seems to have almost been overtaken by water pollution in terms of being a pollutant which kills and is on the rise. As mentioned in the article, 40% of rivers in China are polluted to such an extent that they are deemed unsafe for human usage, with 20% being so polluted that they were “rated too toxic even to come into contact with.” This worrying amount of water pollution is estimated to be caused due to the “10,000 petrochemical plants along the Yangtze and 4000 along the Yellow Rivers” which, shockingly, are not the most polluted of all the rivers. These plants do not have the appropriate facilities to clean up the waste it produces, and so much leaks into the rivers or is simply dumped there. It is estimated that water pollution can cause up to 60,000 premature deaths annually. It is clear that this is problem that needs to be solved as “20.8% of water stations are evaluated to be worse than Grade V” on the water quality monitoring scale, which is one of the worst scores recorded.

    As China is the world’s leading consumer of water, it must be hoped that the solutions listed in this article, such as desalinisation plants, continue to expand provide benefits. However, this solution is being considered to be too expensive to implement. Usage cannot be reduced further as it is already a third of what it used to be, new springs are not feasible, and more water cannot be transported.Therefore, recycling and sewage treatment is being considered as the only way to move forward with the current water crisis, by modernising drainage systems and learning how to properly treat the water. China is also building a $62 billion ‘South-to-North Water Diversion Project’ which is aimed to be completed by 2050. It will link the Yangtze, Yellow, Huaihe and Haihe rivers and divert “44.8 billion cubic meters of water yearly from southern rivers to the arid north”. It is hoped that this will also help solve the issue, however, there are still worries that the water will be polluted. If it does get completed, lets hope that this does not allow for the same crisis to occur in the South.


  2. lo2g11 May 11, 2013 at 4:06 pm #

    The Chinese people are becoming more vocal about their concerns through the use of demonstrations, and in turn the government seem to be responding. The impact on health is a great concern for many Chinese people the expense of economic growth is increasingly becoming too large, and that seems to be more of the case with economic growth slowing down. From 1996, the number of environmental protests in China has been growing by 29% per year. This figure came from Yang Zhaofei, vice-chair of the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences, at a speech to a recent special meeting of the Standing Committee of the 11th National People’s Congress.
    This can be observed in the following examples:
    • Jin Zengmin bet $32,000 to a politician if they dared to swim in a nearby river for a mere 20 minutes.
    • In July 2007, police clashed with thousands of people in Yuanshi, a town in Sichuan Province
    • Over 300,000 petitions were received on environmental matters during the 11th Five Year Plan. China’s petitioner masses now include many with environmental complaints.
    • Popular protests sparked by environmental concerns in Shifang in Sichuan province, Qidong in Jiangsu and Ningbo in Zhejiang, and violent protest can be observed in the district of Zhenhai in October 2012, as a result of their direct action Chinese authorities halted work of the polluting chemical factory.


    Feng Jie and Wang Tao (2012) Officials struggling to respond to China’s year of environment protests. Chinadialogue [online] Available at: [Accessed: 2 May 2013]
    Hays, J. (2008) WATER POLLUTION IN CHINA – China | Facts and Details. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 2 May 2013]. (1991) China’s Three Gorges Dam Social Consequences. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 1 May 2013]

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