China encounters The Rime of the Ancient Mariner


in 2005 the Minister of Water Resources declared a need ‘”o fight for every drop of water or die, that is the challenge facing China”, while former premier Wen Jiabao said that water shortages threatened “the very survival of the Chinese nation”.

Is it really that bad? Unfortunately, it is. Accepted definitions of water stress, scarcity and acute scarcity are resources of 1,700 cubic meters, 1,000 cubic meters and 500 cubic meters per person per year, covering everything from nuclear power stations to teeth cleaning. China’s overall resources are roughly 2,000 cubic meters, but 80 per cent of water resources are in the south. In the north, eight provinces suffer from acute water scarcity, a further four from scarcity. They account for 38 per cent of China’ agriculture, 50 per cent of its power generation, 46 per cent of its industry and 41 per cent of its population.

The water resources of the 112m population of the Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei region, equate to half of acute scarcity. In the past 25 years, 28,000 rivers have disappeared. Groundwater has fallen by up to 1-3 metres a year. One consequence: parts of Beijing are subsiding by 11cm a year. The flow of the Yellow River, water supply to millions, is a tenth of what it was in the 1940s; it often fails to reach the sea. Pollution further curtails supply: in 2017 8.8 per cent of water was unfit even for agricultural or industrial use.

The consequences of scarcity are all too human. In Lintao city residents in high rise buildings must carry water up to their apartments. In Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi province (population 35m), the 2,500-year-old famed vinegar industry is under threat, while at the main international hotel last year guests were advised that water for washing was available for one hour a day. Zhengzhou’s projected population increase of 3m-4m by 2020 may be unrealisable: there is water for only one of seven new purifying plants.

The political challenge is immense: China’s Five Year Plan implies halving per capita water consumption while doubling China’s 2010 GDP. “Don’t worry,’ say economists, “China has the South North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP). They can shift water. Or desalinate it.” Alas, not in sufficient quantities. Even if all the water of the SNWTP went to the Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei region, it would still leave its population suffering acute water scarcity. But it must also supply three other provinces. Transfers from Tibet or Russia are fantasy. Desalination is dotty: it is very power-consuming and power generation (still largely coal) consumes much water.

In other news, we seemed to recall that there were three childhood traits of cereal killers which included decapitation, setting on fire, or taking a wee-wee on Tony the Tiger.

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