China Water Crisis Price of Progress

B. McPherson 
No water no life
China’s great leap forward that started in the 1990s has exacted a heavy price on the environment and small farmers. Slack environmental protection laws have allowed the factory owners to dump toxic waste directly into waterways, polluting them in some cases to the point where it is dangerous to touch the water.

In addition to widespread pollution of waterways and ground water, industry sucks up vast amounts of water in the manufacturing process. Much of China runs on coal power, a resource in abundance particularly in the north part of the country which also is amongst the driest of the territory. Coal uses about 17% of China’s available water, but much comes from already dry areas. Some of these areas are as dry as the Middle East. Water used for industry becomes unavailable for growing food.

While the central government is aware of the looming crisis, many urban dwellers are going about their daily business in blissful ignorance of the looming crisis. If water is restricted to industry then people are thrown out of work and civil unrest is likely to occur. If farmers lose their water sources they won’t be able to grow sufficient food for the billions of mouths and civil unrest is likely to occur.

In an attempt to make denizens of Beijing more aware of the problem and advertising firm has placed large reflective installations around public spaces in the city in to engage the people in a creative way. A spokesperson for the firm, Grey Group, stated that many people who live within Beijing have never seen a river or a lake.

The water crisis is rapidly getting worse. Twenty years ago while travelling in the PRC, one of the most lasting memories I have of the countryside is rivers full and brawny and agricultural areas lush with water in ditches and small boys herding ducks. Since then the Province of Hubei has lost 974 of its 1000 lakes. An estimated 28 000 rivers country wide have been sucked dry by overuse. Most that remain are compromised.

China has embarked on the ambitious and expensive South to North Water Diversion Project that will eventually divert water from the mighty Yangtze River to supply the northern taps. This will be the biggest water diversion project in the world, yet even the Yangtze is losing its volume.

Since Deng Xiaopeng declared, “Let a few get rich.” Society in China has changed radically, including riches for many. Those running the country have some difficult choices to make in the near future with civil unrest a likely outcome no matter which path they choose.

The official line in the PRC is that the water shortages are a result of climate change but other important factors are also at play.

·         Increasing population, currently more than 1.349 billion people
·         Deforestation
·         Industrialization
·         Pollution which effectively prevents usage for drinking or agriculture

There may already be moves afoot to curb water usage by China’s industries. Today Bloomberg News is carrying a report that 1400 companies in 19 different industries have been ordered to cut production. The official reason is given as there is overproduction and that will force prices down. The side benefit will also be reduced production equals reduced water consumption.

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