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China’s Economy and the Water Crisis—A Fresh Take

by Elizabeth C. Economy
February 16, 2011

The algae-filled Chaohu Lake is seen in Hefei, Anhui province, on August 3, 2010.

The algae-filled Chaohu Lake is seen in Hefei, Anhui province, on August 3, 2010. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

While China’s economy continues to grab headlines, a new report, “Choke Point: China,” suggests  that we ought to be spending a bit more time on an often-ignored economic fundamental: water.   China’s environment has been a long-standing passion of mine, both as a research focus and as an area to promote U.S.-China cooperation. While China’s poor air quality has received a lot of attention in the West—we can all see the pollution in Beijing or read about the pollution clouds that travel from China across the Pacific to the United States—the issue of greatest concern for China is access to clean water.

We know a fair amount about China’s water challenge already. Both municipal and industrial demand for water continues to grow, as both the economy and middle class expand, and levels of pollution throughout many of China’s major river systems and largest lakes make the water unusable even for agriculture or industry (forget about fishing or drinking). China is sinking as underground aquifers are drawn down, with the result that buildings are tilting, highways cracking, and people relocating as their coastal villages sink beneath sea level. Water is a source of societal concern: the public health costs from polluted water are mounting, and water pollution remains a source of significant social unrest in rural China. Civil society in China, in the form of environmental NGOs, has made enforcement of water pollution control regulations one of their top priorities.

However, there is always more to learn, and the new web-based media report, “Choke Point: China—Confronting Water Scarcity and Energy Demand in the World’s Largest Country,” produced by the NGO Circle of Blue, takes a fresh look at this issue. It leads with good news: Some cities, such as Beijing, for example, are beginning to recycle wastewater for use in toilets or other grey-water applications. Yet, the bulk of the initial report—and this is the first in a series of twelve postings yet to come—underscores the challenge the country faces, particularly from the nexus of energy and water. Almost 20% of China’s water consumption goes to the mining, processing, and consumption of coal. Coal consumption has tripled since 2000, and Chinese analysts project another 30% increase by 2020. To meet the water demand will require ever more costly, large-scale, and technologically complex river diversion projects—a plan of action that many view as untenable over the long term.

“Choke Point: China” doesn’t yet explore the broader ramifications of such growth, such as discussions in Beijing of diverting water from the Yarlung Tsangpo (which flows into the Brahmaputra), which would likely lead to serious political tensions with India or the implications of growing water scarcity for global agricultural commodities. However, I would bet that these issues and many others will be discussed in the rest of the twelve-part series. I, for one, will read each eagerly to see what the water future for China and the rest of the region might hold.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by hughes

    How about this: “America’s economy and the debt/deficit crisis–a fresh take”. There is a saying that “when you keep pointing a finger at another, there are always three fingers pointing back at you”. While I have absolutely no confidence that our leaders can solve our debt/deficit crisis, I have every confidence that the decisive Chinise leadership will solve their water crisis problem. Infact, I can picture the top leadership laying the groundwork to capture all river water right before it empties to sea and divert it to affected areas. To westerner, this might sound like a monumental construction project. But if you take a closer look at the Great Wall, you will know that construction of projects that stagger human imigination is the true DNA of China.

  • Posted by Stock Investment Research

    China’s exports and investments would be much better in 2011 than this year, but the growth rate of consumption would pull back slightly from this year’s boom, making 9 percent growth “very likely”. To keep its economy on track for sustained growth, however, China still faces three major challenges in the long term

    – The first challenge comes from the rapid rise of labor costs in the country
    – The second challenge is from liquidity as China’s currency,
    – The third major challenge concerns whether China can maintain its quick economic expansion in the future.

  • Posted by Gary

    If one knows the nature of the leading party in China, one would understand why everything’s getting worse inevitably and irreversibly.

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