From droughts to Evian to pollution: China’s complex water issues
Share this on

From droughts to Evian to pollution: China’s complex water issues

According to environmental group Greenpeace, China’s plans to construct coal-fired power plants and coal mines in dry northern and western provinces – including Inner Mongolia, Ningxia and Shanxi – will put a severe strain on water supplies and could even lead to a water crisis.

Coal plants and mines require large amounts of water, but these arid provinces only have 10% of the national Chinese average for water resources.

From Reuters:

The development of the massive coal power base will also drain and pollute groundwater resources, which will in turn exacerbate drought as there will be less usable water available.

Coal mining in Inner Mongolia has already resulted in the desertification of native grasslands.

Another study, published in Science magazine, explores the problems of safe water access in China.

From another Reuters article:

Two-thirds of China’s 669 cities have water shortages, over 40 percent of its rivers are severely polluted, 80 percent of its lakes suffer from eutrophication — an over-supply of nutrients, often a result of fertilizer run-off from farmland — and about 300 million rural residents lack access to safe drinking water, the researchers reported.

Part of the problem stems from government agencies not cooperating or communicating with one another and therefore work at loggerheads. For example, one agency may be promoting more fertilizer use while another promotes energy (as is the case described above in China’s arid provinces). The efforts of these agencies hinder policies for clean water or water conservation. So does a commitment to economic growth which takes precedence over such policies, thereby rendering them ineffective.

The authors of the report recommend increased efforts for water efficiency and a focus on cross communication between different agencies and those with competing interests.


Glacier, Tibet, pic: Jan Reurink (Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile China’s high-end imported bottled water business is positively booming, despite excessive nitrates (which can cause oxygen depletion and cancer) found in Evian bottled water.

High-end water from some Chinese companies is also operating in a strong growth market. Tibet 5100, a company that sources water from Tibetan glaciers, saw revenues grow by 76% from 2010 to 2011.

Despite its problems with safe water access (as described above) China in general is not big on bottled water. On average Chinese drink only about 15% of the bottled water their European counterparts imbibe. In contrast to Tibet 5100, most (non-high-end) bottled water producers in China are not doing well.

Read more on that story in China Daily.

Finally, in late July China’s Three Gorges Dam project, controversial for a number of reasons, including altering its downstream environment and contributing to drought, met its greatest yet with the massive flooding of the Yangtze River.

The floods caused 82,000 people to evacuate their homes, but the dam did its job by preventing the kind of severe damage seen before its construction.

From China Dialogue:

Since the Three Gorges reservoir was filled, there have been no repetitions of the severe flooding of 1998, which killed more than 3,700 people and left 15 million homeless. But the controversy hanging over the dam has spread to questions about its impacts on drought and the downstream climate. These complex issues, which interlink with hot topics like climate change, have sustained the dam as a focus of public debate in China.

Even China’s highest state organ issued a statement last year acknowledging issues regarding the Three Gorges Dam relating to evacuations, environmental protection, geological disasters, navigation, irrigation and water supplies.


Three Gorges Dam, pic: Christoph Filnkößl (Wikimedia Commons)