Country report - 1. China

Posted: 11 January 2001

Author: Xiong Lei

Water challenge for China

Once thought to be inexhaustible, China's water supplies are falling behind demand as industry and the cities grow and agriculture struggles to keep pace with a population heading for 1.3 billion. Xiong Lei reports from Beijing on China's response to the problem.

mapOn 30 December 2000, the overseas edition of the People's Daily, China's leading national newspaper, devoted a whole page highlighting the county's water dilemma.

The front page of its weekly Green Life edition carried an alarming headline: An Overall Crisis of Water Supply in China's Cities. The report under it revealed that of the 668 cities in the country, more than 400 have suffered water shortage, with over 100 thirsting desperately for water.

In another story on the same page, Shen Yunfen, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Science, warned that the water pollution is breaking through China's last defence line - the country's coastal waters.

China has been frequently hit by red tides in recent years, he pointed out. In 1998 alone, China was raided by 22 red tides, causing deaths to numerous fish, shrimp and other aquatic products, incurring an economic loss of more than one billion Yuan (US$120 million). In May 2000, a red tide near the Zhoushan islands in east China's Zhejiang province extended 80 kilometres and covered an area of 7,000 square kilometres, which was the largest of its kind that hit the coastal waters of China in the 1990s.

The chief culprit of the red tides has been water pollution, he said. For instance, the Yellow River and the Yangtze, known as the "Mother Rivers" of the Chinese nation, have become two dumping grounds. In the Yangtze River valley, many big cities have continued to discharge untreated waste and sewage water. Nearly all the river sections close to big cities have been polluted to various extent.

A polluted section of the Yangtze River© China FeaturesThe Chinese used to describe their water resources as "inexhaustible". No longer. China has a total surface run-off of 2,700 billion m³ a year, ranking fifth in the world after Brazil, Canada, the United States and Indonesia. "But actually China is a water-deficient country," says Qu Geping, Chairman of the Environmental and Resources Protection Committee of the National People's Congress, China's highest legislature.

"Divided by its huge population of nearly 1.3 billion, there accumulates in China each year a little more than 2,000 m³ of water to each person - which is barely equal to the amount actually consumed by each person annually in the United States."

This per capita water volume is only one-quarter of the world average.

China is further disadvantaged by an uneven distribution of water resources and rainfall. Surveys show that 62 per cent of China's farmland is located in areas where the annual surface run-off is less than 18 per cent of the total. Also, 85 per cent of the rainfall in North China and 70 per cent in the south falls in the summer, between June and September. As a result many dry areas have to prepare against floods every year.

People pressure

According to Qu Geping, the ideal population size for China's limited water resources is no more than 650 million people. The country's hugepopulation has long outstripped its water balance.

Even though China's per capita water consumption remains low - averaging only about 100 litres a day - the supply still cannot keep pace with growing demand. According to the Ministry of Construction, while China's urban water supply capacity grows 7 per cent annually, the demand goes up by 10 per cent.

In the countryside, more than 20 million hectares of farmland and 93 million hectares of pastures are thirsting for water. It is a situation made worse by the pressure of people on existing and former wetlands.

During the past 50 years, much land was reclaimed from lakes in order to feed an ever-growing population. That cost China 35 billion m³ of freshwater resources. Dongting and Boyang Lakes, two of the major basins for floods of the Yangtze, China's longest river, have shrunk by 46 and 40 per cent respectively in surface area in the past 40 years. Meanwhile, their storage capacity also decreased from more than 30 billion to around 17 billion m³. Hubei in central China was once known as "a province of more than a thousand lakes," but it has seen them shrink and disappear. In the late 1950s it had 1,066 lakes; now it has just 182.

Furthermore, excessive exploitation of groundwater has resulted in land subsidence and falling groundwater levels in many Chinese cities. In Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi Province, the groundwater table has dropped so much thatthe ground level is sinking five times as fast as in the 1970s. "Some 80 per cent of the groundwater resources in North China have been exploited," says Wang Weizhong, an official with the Ministry of Science and Technology. "It no longer pays to develop the remaining ones." He adds that the water problem "has become a major restriction on the development of China's economy."

Several large-scale water diversion projects aimed at relieving the thirsts of northern cities like Tianjin, Dalian, Qinhuangdao, Qingdao and Xi'an were built in the 1980s. But Qu describes these as "ways when there was no way out". The water from these projects is very costly in terms of capital construction, says Zhang Linxiang, senior engineer and Deputy Director of the Department of Water Affairs Administration of the Ministry of Water Resources.

The project to divert water from the Yangtze River in South China to Beijing and other areas in the north has been studied for years but has yet to materialise. Qu Geping points out that the project, huge though it is, will still not provide universal coverage. While it is essential to promote family planning and slow population growth to alleviate mounting pressures on water resources, the process is "long and slow," he says. "A more urgent task is to extend resources by reducing waste and pollution."Irrigation, ChinaWatering by hand in Guangdong Province© Peter CharlesworthSince the 1980s, the Chinese parliament and government has issued four laws and 100 decrees concerning water, including a water law, laws for pollution prevention and control, for water and soil conservation, and for flood control. Nationwide, many more decrees and regulations dealing with protection of water resources and at the rational consumption of water have been issued by local governments.

As people become more conscious of the need to save water, more advanced techniques are introduced. Up to 1999, water-saving irrigation techniques, such as sprinkling and drip irrigation, have been applied to 17 million hectares of farmland in North China, improving efficiency by 50 per cent, according to the Ministry of Water resources. Thanks to these water saving efforts, the annual water consumption for farming has remained around 400 billion m³ a year, although the acreage of irrigated farmland increased from 35 million in 1993 to 53 million hectares. Nevertheless, there are still potentials. For every kilogramme of wheat, 40 per cent more water is used in China than in advanced countries.

The industrial sector also promises great potential savings in water use. China's industry consumes 90 billion m³ of water annually, of which only 50 per cent is recycled. "Our water consumption is unreasonable high compared with more developed countries," says Chai Wenzhong, an engineer with the Ministry of Construction. "For every ton of steel we use 20 m³ more of water, and for every ton of paper, we use 200 m³ more. By recycling another 15 per cent of water in industrial use, 5.25 billion m³ can be saved annually," adds Chai.

Zhang Linxiang points to Beijing's outstanding example. "In the past 10 years the city's industrial output value more than tripled, but itsindustries' water consumption did not go up. That is encouraging."

Pollution problem

Pollution further aggravates China's water shortage. According to Jiang Shucheng, Minister of Water Resources, water bodies in 90 per cent of China's cities are contaminated. In northeast China's Liaoning Province, a traditional heavy industry base, pollutants in 200 million tons of wastewater flowing annually into the 12 rivers that crisscross the province exceed state-subscribed standards by nearly 60 times.

In 1997, the Ministry joined the State Environment Protection Administration in testing the water quality in the country's major rivers that total 100,000 kilometres in length. It turned out that water along 46,500 kilometres were contaminated.

By 1998, only 23.6 per cent of the urban sewage was treated. And even where some treatment has taken place, the disposed wastes still pose a serious pollution threat. "Almost every city is surrounded by a polluted river," observes Zhang Linxiang. "While the surface water in urban areashas been severely contaminated, the groundwater in a number of cities is also polluted to varying degrees."

As cities are throwing more money in building two-stage sewage treatment plants, China's water situation remains grim. According to Minister Jiang, the most realistic and immediate way of tackling the problem is to use water more sparingly, the way Beijing is doing by fitting new taps to save every drop. "to fight for every drop of water or die - that is the challenge facing China," the Minister says.

Xiong Lei is a journalist working for China Features in Beijing

Beijing's efforts to save water

As a centuries-old capital city, Beijing was once the scene of interweaving rivers and lakes. It was dotted with wells in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and boats shuttled in the canal between the capital and Huangzhou, 1,000 km away in southeast China.

Although urbanization and population growth devoured most of the rivers and wells, Beijing managed to live on its seemingly abundant groundwater resources and never knew a water crisis until the 1980s.

"The worse water famine came in the summer of 1981," recalls Duan Wenjie, chief planner of the Beijing Waterworks Company. "The groundwater level had been dropping one or two metres a year, and there wasn't enough rainfall or other surface runoff to replenish it."

Between 1949 and 2000, Beijing's daily per capita water consumption went up from 28 litres to nearly 300 litres.

From the 1981 water famine the local leaders became more aware of the necessity to reduce consumption while extending sources. Wang Mingming, Deputy Director of the Beijing Municipal Water-Saving Office, says, "We have worked hard to make it known to the public that it is a virtue to treasure water resources and use it economically."

In mid-1999 Beijing municipal workers were busy installing what is known as a Jieshui Longtou - a newly-developed "water-saving tap" - at residences and in public places. This tap, officials point out, can be turned on and off at least 200,000 times without dripping. Earlier in the year, the authorities had banned the use of screw taps, often made in backyardfactories in the countryside and with substandard metals, blaming them for causing 15 per cent of the city's water leaks.

"Every drop counts," said a Beijing TV anchor-woman when commenting on the ban of the leaky taps. Every year the Chinese capital needs to consume 4 billion m³, yet in 2000, its runoff was no more 1.82 billion m³, and it has to rely on the previous storage to maintain its water supply. "Beijing is now as thirsty as israel," says an official at the Beijing municipal water resources administration. In the 1980s, the municipal people's congress and government had issued.

Decrees and regulations on water saving, stipulating that all industrial enterprises should recycle their used water, and every household must have a water metre installed. The decrees and regulations also forced all new projects to have water saving facilities designed, installed and operated simultaneously with the project. An overall plan gives an annual quota for water consumption to each hotel, factory, shop, government office and other work unit.

At the end of 2000, a municipal government mandate puts up even more strict regulations, by which enterprises that surpass the water consumption quota may be charged a fee as high as 15 times the regular rate.

By the new mandate, tanks with a capacity over nine litres for flushing toilets are also banned. Only seven years ago, the popular tank capacity was as big as 17 litres.

Beijing has led other cities in recycling water for industrial use: more than 80 per cent of such water is recycled in Beijing, against the national average at 50 per cent.

More and more citizens have taken action to save water in their daily life. Li Shuzhen, a 66-year-old resident in southern Beijing, has learned to save the water left from washing rice and vegetables to use for mopping the floor, to economize on the use of water when operating the washing-machine, and minimize the use of detergents since they are a source of pollution.

According to Zhou Xing, an official in charge of the water saving campaign in the neighbourhood, on average one household of the community with nearly 700 families can save three to four tons of water every month.

Xiong Lei