文章 Articles

Fresh water thinking for a thirsty nation

With nearly a quarter of the world’s population, but just 8% of its freshwater, China is the thirstiest nation on earth. But as Roger East reports, the crisis has unleashed a wave of fresh thinking, whose ripples are running well beyond water.
Article image

Last November’s chemical pollution disaster on the Songhua River in northern China propelled the country’s water problems into the news around the world. By no means the first of its kind, it caught the attention because of its scale – depriving millions of people in and around Harbin of drinkable water for several days – and its extent, threatening to spread toxic contamination downstream into Russia. Even more alarmingly for the Chinese authorities, it also provoked the kind of public anxiety that the country’s stability-conscious leaders know they cannot afford to ignore.

In the wake of this disaster, the head of the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) was replaced. His successor, Zhou Shengxian, was swift to offer reassurance, promising safety inspections and stricter monitoring of the 21,000 chemical factories located along the country’s rivers and coastline. “The Chinese government”, he told a press conference in January, “has made a very timely and determined decision to stop the conventional approach of development, which could be characterised as ‘pollution and destruction first, treatment later.’”

Five months later, SEPA’s latest report on its activities and priorities gave pride of place to controlling water pollution as China’s most important environmental task, with a particular focus on providing drinking-water security. And just a month after that, in July 2006, action on water pollution was top of the government’s list of environmental spending priorities. In particular, He Bingguang of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) promised sewage treatment work on an unprecedented scale, within an overall environmental investment programme amounting to 1,400 billion yuan [U.S. $175 billion] – or some 1.5% of China’s GDP for the next five years.

But such improvements, vital as they are, can only tackle part of the problem. The bottom line is that China has just 8% of the world’s fresh water to meet the needs of 22% of the planet’s population – and, in the words of the Worldwatch Institute, “virtually the entire northern half of the country is drying out”.

Clearly, China can’t afford to go on wasting this scarce resource by polluting its rivers and groundwater as it has done. Facing up to the true cost of water must be part of any more sustainable equation. Historically, it has been kept so cheap at the point of use that there was little incentive to treat it as a scarce resource. But that’s starting to change. Take Beijing, one of the cities that suffers the most acute water stress, with only one eighth of the national average volume of water per person. In the last 15 years, it has raised its residential water prices more than 20-fold. Industry is facing the prospect of more realistic charges too. And this April, new rules came in governing water use in agriculture, which still accounts for almost two thirds of total consumption. Farmers can still take freely from their own ponds for personal consumption, but permits and charges are being more rigorously applied for abstraction from rivers, lakes and underground supplies. Progress is under way too, in more efficient irrigation methods – to replace the notoriously wasteful flood irrigation which is still so widely used.

It is typical of the Chinese leadership that it sees large-scale engineering as part of the answer. Its huge and controversial hydro-electric dam projects, epitomised by the Three Gorges, aim to contribute to water-supply management as well as meeting power needs. But even these are put in the shade by the size and ambition of the recently launched South-North Water Diversion Project. This massive undertaking is intended for completion by 2050 at an expected cost of almost 500 billion yuan. The idea is to tap into the relatively plentiful water of the Yangtze river system to bring relief – to the tune of 45 billion cubic metres of water a year - to the parched north.

Boatmen in the Three Gorges

 © Lovell

Many environmentalists doubt that the Yangtze system can afford to be deprived of this much flow. Others worry, too, that water losses en route will be punitively high. But no one could dispute that the north sorely needs the water. Problems of inadequate supplies there have been exacerbated by environmental degradation and a five-fold increase in the use of river water for irrigation.

The South-North water diversion project may involve massive expense and engineering skill, but that has not saved it from being likened to “a cup of water to put out a bonfire - not enough to quench the thirst.” Those are the words of Ma Jun, whose book, China’s Water Crisis, made him one of the country’s best known and most influential environmentalists. Ma sees water shortage as such a potent time bomb that some cities around Beijing and Tianjin will have no water left in just five to seven years.  

Hence the importance of some of the innovative solutions that are emerging around the country. Meeting its water challenge will require all the ingenuity, traditional wisdom and technological expertise that can be mustered, both from its own experience, and from international co-operation. 

The author: Roger East is managing editor of Green Futures, the U.K.’s leading magazine on environmental solutions and sustainable development.

This article will appear in “Greening the Dragon: China’s Sustainability Challenge”, a special supplement produced by Green Futures magazine, to be published in September 2006. www.greenfutures.org.uk

Homepage photo by Wam Mosely

Now more than ever…

chinadialogue is at the heart of the battle for truth on climate change and its challenges at this critical time.

Our readers are valued by us and now, for the first time, we are asking for your support to help maintain the rigorous, honest reporting and analysis on climate change that you value in a 'post-truth' era.

Support chinadialogue

发表评论 Post a comment

评论通过管理员审核后翻译成中文或英文。 最大字符 1200。

Comments are translated into either Chinese or English after being moderated. Maximum characters 1200.

评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



China's water crisis is agricultural and rural, rather than urban

I read the phrase "fresh wave of new thinking" and "innovation" but saw nothing of either in the text. Pricing has been discussed for years and still there is no agreed solution to China's 'agricultural problem' - agriculture produces only 15% of GDP, but pays next to nothing for water. Were increases to be introduced it would either impoverish millions of farmers (unable to afford the new rates) or send food costs and inflation soaring.

Similarly, waste water treatment, though important, hardly fits into the category of innovative. But China has already acted on this some time ago - China's amended water pollution law sates that all cities with a population of more than 250,000 must build waste water facilities for recycling.

So innovative solutions for the north of China? Israel has fantastic agriculture but is one of the most arid countries in the world. How? By using drip technology and using syringes to inject vegetation. Perhaps China could (and perhaps already is) learning from their experience.

And there are other, cheaper but genuinely innovative solutios for the poor out there, which have been neglected by the government and the international donor community. International Development Entreprises had a great water storage project down in Guizhou that catered to the poor which ran out of money. But is more of that kind of thinking that is needed to really find solutions.


Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


中国的农业消耗着中国70%左右的水资源,虽然农业仅对GDP做出了15%的贡献,但它却支撑着中国60%人的生活。农业实施改革会是可行的有效节水的方法,我们已经投资了很多钱在处理城市和工业废水上了,那样可以有效的改善水质。水是减少贫穷和改善身体保健的关键因素。现在中国已经增长了国民的收入,所以对那些缺少特权的农村人口提供资助是非常必要的,这样可以缩小收入上的差距并能保证社会的稳定。要实现这些目标就需要政府各部门间的合作,达到像沿海城市那样的水平。尽管有政策和法律的支持但如果要完成这些目标却还是有很大的困难的。另外农业政策间的不匹配也是个关键的阻挡因素-集中精力在各地和全国的平均水平上保证谷物的定额产量-不考虑当地的作物选择的不适合性而给他们提供充足的水资源。水政策应当和农业政策相融合,这样可以提供给农民们灵活的方法和指导以刺激他们。流动资金应当增加来增长对使用新的喷和滴的灌溉方法或激光水平及其他提高灌溉高效性的投资上。虽然有政策性的指导,但我们还是在全面发展的大环境下过多的集中了精力在落后的技术上,提供资金、培训和领导层才是成功的关键。农民人均只有0.1公顷的土地来支撑他们的生活是极不合理的,农民自己只有很小的空间去作出他们的决定。但是我们有些有经验和能力的农村和社区组织,他们被管理的却是非常的合理。到时候更多的农民将被允许搬迁入城市(到2030年城市人口与农村人口比例将达到50:50),更多的一留的集中管理和运转将被采用。建立在财富之上的更好的农业将会被减少了的农村人口使用,这样收入的差距将会没有了,而在对稳定的环境发展上的投资将会增加。理解了这个当地农村管理系统也知道了通过现存的社会结构来完成积极的改变,对我来说这是成功发展的关键所在,我对听说其他记者对此系统的运行有更深的见解以及他们是如何被当地政府所影响及草地根部的改善是很有兴趣的。三峡、南水北调及其他很多的计划(关于他们的著作)只是对提出草地根部改善的实施和对中国关于建设稳定的环境的基础建设的分配的投资的一个方面。部分的解决方法包括了将水视为经济型的商品,应用那些被证明了的关于供需和市场方面的经济学方法,集中的使那些稀缺资源以公平的方式正规化,以及阻止大规模的滥用公共用地。现在中国政府已经在面对这些困难了,当然中国也需要得到国际大家庭的支持与帮助来克服这些困难。Simon Spooner [email protected]

Water resource is the key issue

China's Agriculture uses around 70% of water resources, contributes only 15% to GDP, yet it supports more than 60% of the population. Reform of agriculture practice is the route to making a greater quantity of water available, while massive investment in municipal and industrial wastewater treatment is needed to improve the quality of water available.

Water is absolutely key to poverty alleviation and healthy livelihoods. As China develops and has access to increased state revenue so investment to the less privileged rural population is increasingly vital for reducing income gaps and maintaining social stability.

Achieving these goals will require much greater integration of government departments - working towards achieving objectives at a river basin level. Policy and The laws enabling this are already in place but there is a huge challenge in implementation.

Other key challenges are the mismatch between agricultural policy - focused on maintaining grain production quotas at local, regional and national levels - irrespective of the inappropriateness of some crop choices at local levels given water resource capacity. Water policy and agricultural policy need to merge to give the farmer flexibility and guidance tied to incentives. Rolling funds need to be extended to stimulate investment in more efficient new spray and drip irrigation or in laser levelling and other technologies to improve efficiency of flood irrigation.

Again policy guidance is already in place but there is too much focus on the technological fixes when the development of an enabling environment - providing finance, training and leadership - is the key to success. With the average rural person having just 0.1 hectare to support them the system is highly fragmented and the individual farmer has little room to make decisions. However very strong and effective organisation at village and community level means that these small holdings are managed in a remarkably coordinated manner.

In time the population migration to the cities (expected 50:50 rural urban split by 2030) will allow for larger farms and more capital intensive operation. Greater agriculture based wealth can be spread amongst fewer rural people and so income gaps can gradually close and investment in environmentally sustainable practices increase.

Understanding this local rural management system and how to implement positive change through existing social structures seems to me the key to successful development and I am very interested to hear from other correspondents for further insight on how these systems operate and how they can be influenced through the county government and grass roots channels.

3 Gorges, South – North Transfer and other such mega schemes (and the rhetoric that surrounds them) are just a side show to the real challenge of bringing about grass roots changes in behaviour and investment in sustainable environmental infrastructure distributed throughout China.

Part of that solution does involve treating water as an economic commodity and applying the proven economic tools of supply demand, markets and incentives to formalise management of a scarce resource in an equitable manner and prevent wide spread abuse of commons. The Chinese Government now is in a position to meet the challenges it faces and should be supported in doing so by the international community.

Simon Spooner.

[email protected]

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Departmental cross-working is the next step in environmental protection

Simon – great comments! Environmental solutions do need more of a human touch, which reminds me....Horizontal integration of government departments – the poverty alleviation bureau, the Environmental Protection Bureau and the Yunnan Development Reform Commission – is something that DFID’s Yunnan Environment Programme tried to address, but without too much success. That said, it is early days in this process and uniting the various parts of a fragmented bureaucracy – at national, provincial and local level as well as within and between Provinces – to achieve common goals is a worthy and crucial endeavour. For example, responsibility for monitoring water quality in China is still a grey area and until the institutional muddle is cleared up it seems water quality will continue to suffer. The need to develop “Integrated river basin management” poses a similar challenge. But returning to DFID. I would be extremely interested if their staff would agree to share some of the learning points from their Yunnan experience so as projects that address integration issues in the future can avoid a few of the pitfalls. Regards your point on improving agricultural efficiency. The World Bank implemented a project up in Xinjiang (Tarim II) that spent millions of dollars lining irrigation channels with non-porous membrane skins, laser leveling etc. However, as a result of this project the Bank has also started to make noise about “Water User Associations” – a community-based mechanism for water management which places water in the ownership of local farmers and distributes water between households with greater accountability. Hope this information helps.


Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我来到这个论坛参与讨论有点迟了。但是,我不得不辩驳LXY有关英国国际发展部(DFID)的云南项目在促进云南省环保局、云南省扶贫办以及云南省发展和改革委员会三家项目执行机构的水平合作方面收获甚微,而且我并不同意LXY关于国际机构忽略采用一些花钱少但有创新的方法来帮助穷人的看法。举个例子说,英国国际发展部一直是积极建议在中国发展用水者联合会的主要机构,而且积极推进采用技术来解决与环境相关的贫穷问题。如果需要,英国国际发展部乐意共享这些经验。如有疑问,请直接与我联系,我现在在英国国际发展部中国北京办公室工作。我的电子邮件是[email protected]

Response from DFID

I've come into this debate a little late. I'd have to dispute LXY's contention that DFID's Yunnan Environment Programme (www.yedp.org) acheived little success in horizontal integration between the three departments listed, or that the international community has ignored cheap, innovative solutions for the poor - DFID, for example, has been one of the prime proponents for the spread of Water User Associations within China, as well as technologies which try to address environmentally-related poverty problems. DFID China is happy to share the experience, as requested. In the first instance, feel free to contact me directly in DFID China's office in Beijing, via [email protected]