While enjoying its rapid economic development, China has been facing increasingly severe water scarcity. With low per capita water availability at local areas particularly in the northern part of the country, rising water consumption has led to over-withdrawal of both surface water and groundwater in this region with serious environmental consequences such as ground subsidence, salinity intrusion, and ecosystem deterioration. Meanwhile, continuous water pollution makes the situation even worse by degrading the quality of the limited available clean water. Water shortages and water pollution are reinforcing each other, threatening China’s food security, economic development, and improvement of quality of life.
Distribution of scarcityChina’s water resources are spatially distributed with temporal variations. Water resources in China are geographically divided into nice major river basins, including Yangtze, Yellow (Huang), Hai-Luan, Huai, Song-Liao, Pearl, Southeast, Southwest, and Northwest (Figure 1). Accounting for inter-year variation, the total volume of annual internal renewable water resources in China, on average, is estimated at approximately 2,812 billion m3 per year, which includes both surface water and groundwater.
China’s surface water is recharged mainly (around 98%) by precipitation. While generating the spatially uneven distribution of water resources, the spatio-temporal pattern of precipitation further reinforces the spatial distribution of water by introducing a spatially heterogeneous temporal variation. Affected by a strong monsoon climate, the annual average precipitation in China gradually decreases in a spatial gradient from more than 2000 mm on the southeastern coastline to usually less than 200 mm at the northwestern hinterlands. The ratio of maximum to minimum annual precipitation recorded may exceed 8 in northwestern China, but only ranges between 2 and 3 or less than 2 in southern and southwestern regions. In most areas of the country, precipitation within four consecutive months at maximum approximately accounts for 70% of its annual total amount. This spatio-temporal pattern of precipitation indicates varying risk of floods and droughts across the country.
China’s water scarcity has manifested itself in many aspects, including quantitative water shortages, environmental consequences attributable to water resources insufficiency and overexploitation, and qualitative water shortages due to degraded water quality caused by pollution. Since the 1980s, China has seen water shortages of increasing magnitude and frequency for urban industry, domestic consumption, and irrigated agriculture. In normal water years, among 662 cities, 300 will have insufficient water supply and 110 will experience severe water shortages; 30 out of 32 metropolitan areas with populations of more than 1 million people struggle to meet their water demands . Associated with water shortages, heavy demand for water on the other hand has driven up water resource exploitation, particularly in the water scarce north, leading to environmental degradation, groundwater depletion, seawater intrusion, and ground subsidence. Qualitative water scarcity also occurred in many areas where water resources of good quality to support intended uses are insufficient to meet demand. From 2000 to 2003, as much as 25 billion m3 of water was not used because of pollution. About 47 billion m3 of consumed water came from degraded supply that did not meet the before-treatment quality standard, which was almost 10% of China’s total water supply of 563.3 billion m3 in 2005.
Many factors contribute to China’s water scarcity. Naturally, China’s water resources are spatially unevenly distributed with their majority located in the south. Yet, local socio-economic needs for water mainly come from northern and eastern China. Northern China accounts for 45.2% of the total population, but occupies only 19.1% of the country’s water resources. This distributional discrepancy has created extremely low water availability in many local areas to the north of the Yellow River. In particular, in the Yellow (Huang)-Huai-Hai river basins where megacities like Beijing and Tianjin locate, the volume of renewable water resources ranges from 314 m3 per capita per year in the Hai River basin to 672 m3 per capita per year in the Yellow River basin, which are below or close to the threshold level of 500 m3 per capita per year commonly regarded as an indication of absolute water scarcity. With the low water availability, many local areas in northern China are subject to high risk of water shortages. To alleviate the risk and its potential impact requires not only effective water resource management but also consideration in government socio-economic decision-makings to be compatible with the carrying capacity of local water resources.
Since the 1980s, China has been experiencing dramatic socio-economic development. With its average annual GDP growth rate of 9.7% since 1990, China has been one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Meanwhile, China also sees accelerating urbanization with its urban population more than doubled in less than 25 years, accounting for 43% of the country’s total population in 2005 (NBSC, 2006). These socio-economic changes coupled with a large, growing population further intensify the conflict between water supply and demand by creating an ever-increasing demand for water. Moreover, China’s economic growth is largely driven by industrialization with extensive rather than intensive use of natural resources. In 2004, China contributed barely 4% of the global GDP, yet its world natural resource consumption was 15% for water, 28% for steel, 25% for aluminum, and 50% for cement. Rising water consumption associated with socio-economic development increasingly strains China’s freshwater ecosystems, challenging traditional water resource management.
Water pollution further exacerbates the water scarcity situation by degrading the quality of limited available water. Despite rapid socio-economic development, development in sewage systems has not been sufficient enough to keep pace with the growth of the need for wastewater treatment. With weak regulation, water pollution in China is increasing and spreading with more diverse pollution sources. Moreover, since water pollution can have stronger effect on water quality degradation wherever receiving water bodies have lower, less sufficient volumes to assimilate incoming discharged pollutants, the water-scarce north suffers greater pollution impact than the water-abundant south. In China, the quality of water is measured in 5 grades that can be grouped and approximately described as “good” (Grades I-III) or “poor” (Grades IV-V+) that hardly support drinking and swimming. From 2003 to 2006, the proportion of monitored water sections with poor water quality ranged from 50% to 82% for river basins in the north compared to 18-28% for river basins in the south. Water pollution and water shortages reinforce each other, making the water scarcity issue even more prominent in northern China.
Despite all the physical, economic, and social factors that jointly contribute to China’s water scarcity, poor water resource management and policy failure to systematically address water resource issues in the past increase China’s vulnerability and are mainly responsible for the current intensified water scarcity issue. Economically, water resources are a common-pool resource. This economic nature of water resources means that people have no incentive to save water or use it efficiently. Therefore, effective management is needed to take into account the externality of water use and market failure. Over the past decades, China’s water resource management, unfortunately, has been dominated by expanding engineering projects to satisfy growing water demand rather than emphasizing improvement of water use efficiency and saving water. Its institutional system is fragmented and has not been effective in managing water resources. Public policy and decision-making largely fail to account for the limitation of water resources endowment and its physical characteristics in relation to China’s socio-economic development.
The Chinese government has recognized the water resource issues and is taking steps to promote sustainable water use including revising its water law to improve water resource management. The State Council has set up policy objectives for water resource management, including strengthening river basin management, protecting drinking water sources, combating transboundary water pollution, enhancing water saving in agriculture, and increasing the treatment rate of urban sewage by 2010. The 11th Five-Year Plan for Water Resources Development (FYPWRD) includes action plans and methods for implementation and reflects a strategic shift toward sustainable water resource development, including expediting water allocation, developing water rights systems, implementing quota and demand-side management, and improving water use efficiency. Pilot projects have been implemented in recent years to explore water rights management.
Parallel to government actions, the public also play an increasing and important role in water resource management. In rural areas, water users associations (WUAs) have become a popular form of public participation in water resource management. More than 20,000 organizations of farmer water users, mostly in the form of WUAs, have been established to effectively manage and use water. Since 1994, the number of environmental non-government organizations (NGOs) has also increased rapidly in response to the political need for an alternative to state intervention in environmental protection. A survey by the China Union of Environmental Protection in 2005 found a total of 2,768 environmental non-government organizations (NGOs) in China. Environmental NGOs actively participate in water resource management, promoting water resource conservation and water quality protection. A good example is the China Water Pollution Map which was created and managed by the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, an Environmental NGO, to disclose water pollution sources and their distribution.
Despite all the efforts, many issues still exist. As acknowledged by the 11th NFYPWRD, these issues include:
- Lagging water resource management reforms
- Lack of an integrated, efficient, and effective institutional system
- Weak water resource management, including planning, policy design, monitoring, and regulation enforcement
- Underdeveloped water rights system
- Slow establishment of water markets
- Overemphasis on engineering projects compared to management approaches
- The lack of a stable financing mechanism for environmental investment.
- Insufficient attention to role of natural water bodies to support ecosystems
Continuous industrialization and population growth in combination with urbanization will continuously challenge China water resource management in the future. By 2020, China’s population will pass 1.4 billion, which will reduce water availability to less than 2008 m3 per capita per year (or 5501 L per capita per day). In local areas such as the 3-H basin, water availability could be even lower. Meanwhile, urbanization will increase urban water use and sewage discharge, demanding more water supply and growth in wastewater treatment capacity. In addition, China also will need to balance expanding agricultural water use (to support food security and self-sufficiency) with increasing demands for water in both domestic and industrial sectors, particularly in the water-scarce north.
Climate change represents another challenge to water resource management in China. One important feature associated with climate change is more severe floods and droughts with increasing frequency. This implies that China’s water scarcity could be even worse unless measures have been taken that effectively reduce China’s vulnerability to the water issue. Indeed, in recent years, China has seen negative impact of climate change on water availability as water scarce areas become even drier. In the Yellow River basin, average temperatures have increased while precipitation and river runoff have decreased in the past 50 years. In the past 20 years, climate change has decreased water resources in northern China, with the annual flows of the Hai, Yellow, and Huai Rivers reduced 41%, 15%, and 15%, respectively. In addition, the loss of glaciers and wetlands upstream from the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau has decreased river runoffs by 917 billion m3 over the past 50 years and will lead to an annual loss of 143 billion m3 in the future.
Addressing China’s water scarcity requires a holistic, integrated, scientific approach with long-term, coordinated efforts. As the first step, China needs to improve or establish institutional systems that register and regulate water withdrawal and use with clearly defined, legally enforceable water rights. Until water use is regulated and controlled by institutional systems, effective water resource management cannot possibly be achieved.
Second, market-based approaches deserve more attention in policy agenda than passively and solely relying on engineering measures to resolve water shortages. Currently, there has been much concern in China on the negative impact of water pricing on the poor. Transferable water rights coupled with water pricing can mitigate the negative impact of water pricing, if any, while resolving water scarcity. As an example, in water scarce regions, incentive programs may be established that impose progressively higher water tariffs on excess water use and redistribute the water fees to reward water-savings on a balanced budget. To facilitate and regulate the implementation of market-based approaches, the government needs to develop rules, conditions, and assistance programs. Adopting engineering projects to meet water demands needs to be justified by, among others, economic efficiency.
Third, capacity building and developing research-based, data-driven decision support systems need to play an important role in government efforts. Decision support systems based on scientific research and reliable data is the foundation of effective water resource management and can inform good policy design. Currently, basin-level decision support systems that integrate the biophysical and hydrological processes of water resources and the socio-economic dynamics of water use are either unavailable or not well-developed. The capacity to conduct rigorous integrated analysis for decision-makings is weak. A unified information system with measurement and quality standards that maintains water quality and quantity data has not been well developed. Lack of capacity to conduct policy research impedes identifying local issues and the design of targeted policies, wasting limited resources while exacerbating water resource issues. With its economic achievement, China can afford to invest in policy research and developing and maintaining complete information systems to support scientific decision-makings.
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