China’s water security challenges

Image credit: Gerben van Heijningen (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Several recent international studies have concluded with near certainty that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will be water deficient by 2030. Water security has been atop the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) agenda for several decades. But as rapid economic development, climate change and urbanisation intensify water shortages and deterioration, the regime faces an uphill battle in securing China’s water future. The CCP’s ability to meet the competing and growing water needs—from the agriculture, energy and industry sectors, as well as in cities—will be a defining challenge for decades to come.

The PRC hosts 20% of the world’s population but only 7% of its fresh water. To compound this, China’s population is growing and is expected to peak in 2030 at 1.5 billion. CCP policies prioritising urbanisation aim to have 60% of the total population living in major cities by 2020. The Asian Development Bank recently released a report asserting ‘a rise in the urban population would have a larger impact on water demand compared to an increase in the overall population’. In reality, the country’s current water resources cannot meet the projected demand arising from rapid urbanisation. Social stability will therefore depend on the CCP’s ability to quench the growing urban middle class’ thirst and their increasingly water-demanding lifestyles.

The water resources that China does have are unevenly distributed, geographically and temporally, and water distribution is inconsistent with local socio-economic needs. Urban growth will mainly be in water scarce areas. Further, two-thirds of China’s agriculture is in Northern China, but it holds just one-fifth of its water resources. Again, social cohesion in rural areas will depend on half a billion Chinese farmers’ ability to access clean irrigation water and fertile, unpolluted soil. With a growing population demanding more food, the flow on implications resulting from food and industry insecurity in China certainly have the potential to reverberate far beyond Beijing.

Indeed, the domestic, regional and global implications of any water related trigger from China could be crushing. In particular, the threat caused by rising food prices is well known. Ben Abbs of Global Risk Insights observes that when the 2011 droughts in Eastern China necessitated the CCP to buy huge volumes of wheat from international markets, global wheat prices doubled, which in turn helped spark the Arab Spring.

The current energy-water nexus in China is also of great concern. The energy industry is very exposed to water scarcity risk as 93% of power generation in China is water reliant. Coal continues to be the dominant energy source in China, and experts predict coal could still account for up to 55% of China’s energy until 2030. Meanwhile, the coal industry accounts for 20% of China’s total annual water usage. Further, 45% of fresh water reliant power generation facilities are in water stressed provinces. The CCP’s ability to simultaneously meet the growing demands of both water and energy security will depend on the effectiveness of its policies to mitigate water and energy interdependency, as well as its commitment to renewable energy targets and reducing coal consumption.

China’s water shortages are exacerbated by the increase in polluted water and degraded ecosystems. According to China’s water authority, 40% of the country’s rivers are severely polluted and 20% of river water is too toxic for human contact. Over a quarter of the water from China’s seven major river systems is now considered too polluted even for agriculture or industry.

Climate change will increase water temperature, change water distribution geographically and seasonally, and cause sea level rise. The glaciers in the Qinghai-Tibetan region hold the world’s third largest store of fresh water and is the source of 10 of Asia’s major rivers, which support around 1.4 billion lives downstream. But Asia’s Water Tower, as it is known, is now suffering from desertification and has shrunk by 15% over the past three decades. Another devastating and tangible impact was the floods in 2010 and 2012, which pushed the Three Gorges Dam to its limits. These killed hundreds of people and also came at great economic cost.

To date, the PRC has primarily relied on building dams and reservoirs, long-distance water transfer systems and, to a lesser extent, desalination, reclaimed wastewater and rainwater harvesting. The 13th Five-Year Plan period will test the CCP’s ability to narrow the supply-demand gap, and uphold the commitment to cap national water consumption at 670 billion cubic metres by 2020. The goal laid out in the last Five-Year Plan to hold water consumption to 600 billion cubic metres by the end of 2015 was not met, with 618 billion cubic metres consumed.

Satisfying competing demands for clean water in a socially equitable, environmentally just, and economically and technically viable manner is one of the top challenges the CCP faces in the coming decades.

Clare O’Meara is the China Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.