Water Insecurity in China

11 Mar

The availability of water aids nations in the production of food, products, energy and of course the survival of the population. Water is a vital part of our lives, it is also a vital part of geopolitics in South-East Asia. Water insecurity is a prevalent issue in most countries around the world, 80% of the worlds population live in areas where a supply of fresh water is not secure (Black, R, 2014).With Chinas population currently sitting at 1.3bn the issue of water security is an increasingly worrying problem for the Chinese government. Historical records have shown that as a country develops the per capita use of water starts to increase, this is certainly the case in China and many other developing countries such as the BRICs (Dilley, M and Hikisch, D, 2014). A damaging effect of Chinas rapid industrialisation is the pollution that rivers like the Yellow River have experienced. Factories line the river banks discarding waste products into the already heavily polluted river. Water is scarce is Chinas northern provinces, this has prompted the construction of the South-North transfer project which aims to transport water from the water rich south to the water scarce north. There are many solutions to the water insecurity problems that China has but the question is are they willing to sacrifice their agricultural and industrial production to create a more water secure nation. A prominent issue tightly linked to this problem is rapid population growth and the expansion of the Chinese middle class.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has data that shows water demand split into three categories: agriculture, industry and domestic. Agriculture shares 65% of total water use in China, industry requiring 23% and domestic a small 12% (FAO, 2014). Many people would assume that Chinas industrial use of water would greatly exceed what it is currently because of the prevalence of the manufacturing industry. The inefficiency of irrigation in much of the agricultural land in China means that less than half of this 65% actually reaches the crops. This could have far reaching implications for China in the future. With the ever growing population the demand for food will inevitably rise, not only in China but throughout the world. This means the agricultural production will have to be stepped up and if irrigation systems are not made more efficient then a lot of precious water will be wasted. The incredible agricultural demand for water in China could result in policies and regulations to restrict domestic water use, such as water rationing and hose pipes bans. The government has involved TNCs such as Wal-Mart Stores who have pledged to cut their water use in half at more than 155 outlets in China over 2 years (Wal-Mart Stores, 2014). This is a step in the right direction as industrial water use has the second largest share of water in China. Reductions in industrial water use could mean there’s more water for agricultural or domestic use. Another issue that has the potential to affect Chinas water security is the middle class of China, that in recent years has grown at a rapid pace. The growing middle class poses a problem because they will increase their water use. The use of washing machines and changes in their diets will substantially increase water demand. Additionally, this new middle class will demand more consumer products which means industrial production will increase which in turn will require more water.

A technical solution to water insecurity that is experienced in the dry outer regions of the country is transfer projects such as the South-North transfer project which by 2050 plans to transfer water through an Eastern, Western and Central route (International Rivers, 2014). This project will increase the water security of regions in the outer provinces of the country that are largely agriculture orientated. This is an effective long term solution that increases the water security of regions that would otherwise experience water insecurity. It has the potential to bring prosperity into the out provinces with the supposed increased water availability.

Transboundary rivers are a worldwide issue when it comes to water security. Conflicts and disputes have been seen in the middle east between countries such as Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Jordan and Israel. The Himalayas are known as the “water tower of Asia”, the mountain range supplies vast amounts of water every year from snow and ice melt. The water from this flows into the surrounding rivers such as the Brahmaputra which is shared by China, India and Bangladesh (Climate Himalaya, 2014) In order to increase their water security China is in the process of building the Zangmu Dam in Tibet which will act as hydroelectric power station and is a supply of water to surrounding areas. India and Bangladesh who are downstream from the dam have spoken out against the dam stating that the flow will be affected. China have reassured them that this is not the case. A similar situation has arisen on the Mekong River which is another transboundary river that runs through 5 ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) states. China and the countries that the Mekong runs through have all dammed different parts of the river which disrupts the flow of water in these countries. As you can see water insecurity has far reaching political elements which demonstrate the concerns of water insecurity in areas such as South-East Asia.

A major contributory factor that affects Chinas water security is the pollution of water bodies in the country. Mass industrialisation and rapid industrial growth has resulted in water pollution on a nationwide scale. Some rivers in China are declared unsafe for drinking, using on crops and using in industry because it is so dirty and dangerous. More than 4.35bn tonnes of waste water was dumped into the Yellow River in 2005, this is 88m tonnes more than the previous year (Xinhua News Agency, 2014). In addition to the pollution, the river is experiencing a dramatic decrease in water flow. The Yellow River supplies water to 155m people and 15% of Chinas farmland. This demonstrates the dependence on the Yellow River as a supply of water. In November 2006 in Lanzhou in Chinas Gansu province, the Yellow River turned red with an unidentified pollutant coming out of a sewage pipe. Contaminations like this show the complete disregard for water supplies in China. This is one of many cases were toxic liquids have been discharged into rivers from where drinking water is extracted. A recent study has shown that 66% of the water in the Yellow River is unsafe to drink (Xinhua News Agency, 2014). This statistic shows the true extent of how pollution in Chinas major rivers is affecting water security. Water will become so polluted with toxic chemicals and waste that it’ll be useless for everything. This will result in China using water in other areas, such as the Brahmaputra and Mekong and other transboundary rivers.

Water insecurity is obviously a problem in China. It’s caused by over-extraction as a result of exponential population growth and consequential increases in water demand. The inefficiency of irrigation systems cause a lot of water to be wasted which could be used elsewhere. China also experiences political problems with transboundary water ways, in the future this could cause serious conflict and disagreements when water becomes scarce in South-East Asia. The best way to secure a water secure future would be to mediate with the countries in ASEAN and shareholders of transboundary waterways to decide of ownership, a second way would be to impose restrictions on industrial zones which prevent the pollution of major waterways such as the Yellow River.


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