Spectacular economic growth in China has a downside: drought

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In a recent article for The Ecologist magazine, writer Josh Bateman notes that one unintended consequence of China’s spectacular economic growth is a growing water shortage that makes California’s problems look minor by comparison. 

Bateman quotes Jiao Yong, China’s vice minister of water resources, as saying that the country has more than 400 cities that are short of water (and 110 of which are facing serious scarcity). And a study by Yong’s department found that 55 percent of that nation’s 50,000 rivers have disappeared since the 1990s.

But what’s most worrisome is that China is over-exploiting its groundwater supply by 22 billion cubic meters a year — all while per-capita water consumption is less than a third of the global average, according to a senior irrigation specialist at the World Bank in Beijing. A higher standard of living, urbanization and a growing middle class will put major additional pressure on water supplies in the coming decades.

Of course, agriculture remains the greatest user of water, with data from China’s Ministry of Water Resources showing that agriculture accounted for 62 percent of demand in 2008 vs. industry’s 24 percent, domestic’s 12 percent and replenishment at 2 percent. But that percentage is set to decrease as demands from industry and domestic segments increase greatly, Bateman writes. McKinsey data project that by 2030, agriculture demand will account for just 51 percent, whereas industry will claim 32 percent and 16 percent will go toward municipal and domestic uses. Unfortunately, both agriculture and industry use water extremely inefficiently.

But that’s not the only challenge, Bateman notes. More than 60 percent of China's water is in the southern part of the country, but most of the usage is in the north and coastlines.

"Forty-five percent of China's GDP is derived from water-scarce provinces,” says Debra Tan, head of China Water Risk, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit. “It is not easy to grow your economy with limited water and geographical issues beyond your control.”

In addition, a study by Shourong Wang and Zuqiang Zhang concluded that climate change is compounding the problem. The authors found that China's average temperature rose by 1.1°C from 1908 to 2007. They expect that from 2000, the annual mean air temperature in China will rise by 1.3 to 2.1°C by 2020 and 2.3 to 3.3°C by 2050.

Then there’s the fact that China is a coal-powered nation, and coal production is water-intensive and often results in a pollution of the water supply.

It is impossible to overstate how badly China’s water scarcity presents security issues for the country and its inhabitants, experts note, with agriculture and energy production at the top of the list of impacted sectors. This issue also affects the nation’s neighbors, as water is being diverted from the nearly countries of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, India, Thailand and Bangladesh. And it promises to raise global commodity prices, Bateman writes, because “without enough water, the production of all raw materials will be materially impacted.”

According to Reuters, China's current five-year plan calls for the country to invest $304 billion in various infrastructure projects. But, as Bateman points out, “with the different backgrounds and views of the various stakeholders — agriculturalists, environmentalists, government, citizens, foreign countries — this is a complex situation without an easy solution.”

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