China is plagued by a growing water security crisis and its current solutions are far from sufficient. The reverberations of this crisis have already had global implications, notably encouraging the Arab Spring. Further, as the crisis worsens, national, regional, and global political and economic instability will grow.
China has an age-old imbalance. Its agricultural core is in the North whilst its water resource is in the South. As of 2014, North China holds two-thirds of Chinese agriculture but only one fifth of its water. The rise of Mao in 1952 and an interventionist political ideology has cemented this chronic structural issue in the Chinese economy.
The Crisis Grows
Contemporary developments are further pressuring China’s water economy as rapid economic growth has sucked-in water. Agriculture and industry account for 85% of water usage. China has 20% of the world’s population but only 7% of its freshwater resource and a rapidly growing middle class with water-demanding lifestyles; the average hamburger takes 2400 liters to produce. In 2014, eleven out of thirty-one Chinese provinces did not meet the World Bank’s water needs criteria of 1500m3 per person; in 2015 in Beijing for example, water provisions amounted to only 100m3.
China’s artificially low pricing of water has encouraged poor water management by creating a disjuncture between actual and market water prices, promoting highly inefficient use in industry and agriculture, and persistent pollution of scarce freshwater supplies. A 2009 World Bank report stated that China was using ten times more water per unit of production than the average industrialized country and that pollution has made the water in 19% of main rivers and 35% of reservoirs useless for agriculture and industry.
Climate change exacerbates this situation. The meltwater from the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau significantly feeds the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers; the Yangtze alone supports 584 million people and serves an economic zone that constitutes 42% of GDP. According to The State Laboratory of Cryospheric Sciences in China, run off into the Yangtze decreased by 13.9% during the 1990s.
China’s principal solution has been to commission the very high profile South-North Water Diversion Project, inspired by Chairman Mao. In 1952, Mao stated, “[The country’s] South has lots of water, the North has less, if it were possible, it could borrow a little”. The core of the project is a 1200 km canal stretching from the Yangtze to Beijing. It is a political showcase that is temporarily averting the crisis by addressing the symptoms rather than the cause, but at a cost of $62 billion, it is an expensive breather that will not resolve the problem.
By facilitating massive water transportation, China is reinforcing an artificial economy. It is encouraging water-intensive industry and agriculture and promoting a downward spiral of strengthening an insatiable demand whilst failing to combat system inefficiencies. Long term, this project, combined with state-induced low water prices, climate change, and population and economic growth, will perpetuate economic and water scarcity in Northern China. . .