Possible Solutions to China's Water Crises
The People's Republic of China, also known as mainland China, faces considerable challenges with respect to the availability of clean, fresh water. Many of the country's rivers and reservoirs are unsuitable for drinking, bathing, or agriculture, containing heavy metals and other pollutants. In addition, while the population of China represents 21% of global human numbers, the nation has only 7% of the world's fresh water resources.
In northern China, where both productive farmland and a half-billion, mostly urban citizens vie for this thirst quenching reserve, the demands on water far exceed the supply. Many people now must carry rationed quantities of water for their and their families' daily uses. Here we often take water so for granted that we leave the garden hose, the shower, or the bathroom faucet on while doing other things. There, water tables are dropping by a meter a year in certain areas, faucets have simply stopped flowing in places like the city of Lintao, and there are in the works massive projects to divert huge quantities of water from the country's wetter southern region to its comparatively dry north, the equivalent of all of NYC's water being sent west to help parched Californians. Even this remedy may not be enough and is anticipated to have unfortunate consequences, for instance disrupting supplies of water already spoken for by the agricultural interests near southern rivers.
Part of the trouble has been the Communist government's drive to move vast numbers of people out of rural areas and into cities where, it was thought, they would be more productive, improving China's overall economy. Too little realistic planning went into the provision of water for expanded and new metropolises now dotting the landscape. Nor is the leadership about to cry uncle, admit errors, and come up with a better plan. The climate has not cooperated either. The last several years have seen horrendous flooding but more drought, especially in the northern areas of the country. Yet the Party slogan seems to be: "Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead."
China's "mission impossible," in case anyone chooses to accept it, is to move from that dire scenario into a future rooted in sustainability, along the way avoiding a hellish existence for further millions with scant water provisions.
Dwindling Yellow River Water Supply (Image by Teruhiro Kataoka in Wikipedia)
How might that come about?
- Cease resettling multitudes from the land into urban areas that still lack infrastructure for or sources of ample potable water.
- Use desalination to convert abundant sea water into supplies good enough to drink. Small-scale plants can be catered to the needs in local settings. Solar-powered plants can be more efficient.
- Improve farming practices to use less water. Land healthier in terms of good composting requires only a fraction of the water for farming that organically less rich soil does. China's vast population might be better served enhancing the quality of the nation's topsoil on rice- or breadbasket acreage than working the phones in call centers or tending cheap assembly line, pharmaceutical product, garment factory, or food operations to keep Wal-Mart stores making lots of money for shareholders. The U.S. could use the jobs China gives up, if it comes to that.
- Greatly increase China's exploiting of renewable energy. Solar generation of power uses far less water than do coal or other thermal plants. Wind energy requires only the water for manufacture of the turbines. Once they are installed and running, no water at all is needed. To give Chinese national management its due, there is a big push toward building and using more solar panel arrays and wind energy farms.
- Encourage water conservation measures for populations, agriculture, and industries. This might be done, for example, by putting reasonable prices on different levels of water use. It is hardly rocket science that consumers who must pay more for water tend to waste less.
- Improve irrigation techniques to reduce water evaporation, soil loss, and the spread of diseases.
- Diminish corruption, which in China is taking a costly toll, lowering needed incentives and efficiencies, wasting money, and blocking improvements. Here too the national government probably deserves credit for its efforts to cut back on endemic local bribery among entrenched hierarchies.
- Enhance water recycling.
- Do a better job harvesting rainwater.
- Limit high water footprint industries. There is a certain irony, for instance, in the manufacture and wide use of bottled water, which requires 20 times the contents of the bottles produced to make each container.
I realize each of the above measures has its own difficulties. People, industries, and governments will resist necessary changes so long as the costs of doing so do not outweigh the benefits. China's water crisis, though, is already severe enough and the lag time long enough before new ways of doing things can prove effective in solving the dilemma, that substantive improvements are called for at once. The longer the wait, the more extreme these water crises become.