On March 26, China’s Ministry of Water Resources and China’s Ministry of Statistics jointly published a census of the country’s water resources in 2010-2012, covering subjects from rivers and lakes to ground water abstraction wells and reservoirs.

Xinhua, China’s national news agency, quoted the paper as saying that, “China has 45,203 rivers each covering an area of at least 50 square kilometers, totaling 1.51 million kilometers in length. Some 2,865 lakes with a regular surface area of over 1 square kilometer took up 78,000 square kilometers…. The capacity of 98,002 reservoirs amounted to 932.31 billion cubic meters and the total installed capacity of 333 million kilowatts were generated by 46,758 hydropower stations”.

Part of the Yangtze River's river bed is exposed as water level lowered by drought, in southwest China's Chongqing Municipality. A new study has revealed rivers are disappearing all over China. Pic: AP.

The picture is alarming, especially when compared with the past. According to the South China Morning Post, “there were 22,909 rivers in China which had catchment areas of at least 100 sq km – as of the end of 2011. This is less than half the government’s previously estimated figure of over 50,000. The large fall in the number of these rivers has prompted fears that China’s rapid economic development has also caused considerable water and soil loss”.

The problem had already been highlighted by Elizabeth Economy in an article published in 2007 on the International Herald Tribune: “although China holds the fourth-largest freshwater resources in the world (after Brazil, Russia, and Canada), skyrocketing demand, overuse, inefficiencies, pollution, and unequal distribution have produced a situation in which two-thirds of China’s approximately 660 cities have less water than they need and 110 of them suffer severe shortages”.

As China develops, large quantities of water are either absorbed by agriculture and industry or polluted. Consequences are dire: about 70 per cent of Chinese rivers and lakes are polluted from industrial waste, while in 2009 the World Bank pointed out that 300 million people in rural areas lack access to safe drinking water. In 2003, the economic cost of disease and premature deaths associated with the excessive incidence of diarrhea and cancer has been estimated at 66.2 billion Rmb (US$10.7 billion), or 0.49 percent of national GDP. Even the Yellow River, an icon of Chinese history, often does not make it to the Yellow Sea, drying up and dying in the sand far away from it natural end.

In a 2006 interview, Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs and an expert on water-related issues, said that China “is facing a water crisis that includes water shortages, water pollution and a deterioration in water quality. 400 out of 600 cities in China are facing water shortages to varying degrees, including 30 out of the 32 largest cities. In the north, due to the drying up of the surface water, the underground water has been over-extracted. The situation is not sustainable”.

The mentioned World Bank report suggested that “China’s water resources are scarce and unevenly distributed. China’s renewable water resources amount to about 2,841 cubic meters per year, the sixth largest in the world. Per capita availability, however – estimated at 2,156 cubic meters per year in 2007 – is only one-fourth of the world average of 8,549 cubic meters per year and among the lowest for a major country. While China as a whole is facing serious water stress, its problems are made more severe by the fact that its water resources are unevenly distributed, both spatially and temporally”.

Most recently, the issue of water pollution has made its way to the front page of newspapers when thousands of dead pigs were found in the Huangpu river network, which supplies the city of Shanghai. More than 16,000 carcasses were pulled from the river but the cause of their deaths is still unknown, as is their origin. Online discussion of the pig dumping has attracted much attention, a sign that the burgeoning middle class is more concerned with the environment than previous generations used to be. Whether this will be enough to prevent a future water crisis, however, remains to be seen.