China Facing Massive Water Crisis Due to Pollution, Deforestation, Dams, Agriculture, Other Human Impacts.



In a tacit admission that the damage inflicted on China's rivers in the past 50 years by pollution, deforestation, agriculture and other human impacts is irreversible, the Chinese Communist Party will this year approve a $25 billion project to channel the water of the Yangtze River along a 1,200-kilometer route to drought stricken northern China. The biggest water diversion scheme ever attempted will take a decade to complete and at least 200,000 people will have to be relocated.

The decision to go ahead with the south-to-north water diversion project means that no one in authority any longer accepts the fiction that the droughts in northern China can be blamed on a temporary phase in the weather cycle. Rather they are a man made phenomenon caused by such recent events as the massive destruction of forests, marshes and grasslands in the uplands of western China. More than two decades of overpumping and unbridled industrial development have turned rivers and streams to dust, dried up wells and springs, and made entire lakes disappear. Of China's 668 cities, 400 suffer water shortages. In the countryside, riots have broken out as farmers battle for water.

In the past two years major rivers north of the Yangtze have run dry. The Yellow, Huai, Hai, Fen and Luan rivers, as well as the Bayang marshes, all of which helped to sustain Chinese civilization for 5,000 years, are under threat of extinction. The same is true of the great watercourses of Manchuria. These rivers now run only intermittently, and when they do during the summer rains they cause dangerous floods. In most years the Yellow River dries up 800 kilometers from the sea.

Without prompt action, China's total water demand will outstrip usable resources by 31.8 billion cubic metres (1.12 trillion cu ft) by 2010, according to official forecasts. "The discrepancy between water supply and demand gets more prominent every day," said Zhang Zhongfa, senior research fellow at the cabinet's Development Research Centre. "Water resources cannot satisfy the demands of the national economy and social development."

But even if the project is finished on target in 2015, many doubt farmers will be able and willing to pay for the diverted water, which will be sold at a steep 1.6 yuan per cubic metre - about the same as in relatively affluent Beijing. Raising water prices is essential to curb consumption, environmental experts say. But in a country where average rural income is just over 2,000 yuan ($240) per year, any price increase is potentially explosive. Civil unrest over water erupted several times last year, including a deadly riot by villagers in the eastern province of Shandong in July after officials cut off water supplies from a reservoir they had used to irrigate crops. In August, six people were killed accidentally when officials in the southern province of Guangdong blew up a water channel to keep a neighbouring county from diverting water to a new power station.

"For Beijing, this option is fraught with political risks because the public response to raising water prices in China is akin to that of raising gasoline prices in the United States," wrote Lester Brown, chairman of the US-based Worldwatch Institute, in a recent paper. Brown is one of the environmental doomsayers on China. He argues that China's farmers will be worst hit by the crisis as authorities increasingly divert water to cities and industry because of better economic returns. In China, 1,000 tons of water produces one ton of wheat, worth perhaps $200. The same water used in industry would earn $14,000, he wrote.

Evidence gathered by a team of journalists from the official Xinhua news agency in Hebei province appears to back up Brown. In an unusually frank report, the team described how local officials enforced restrictions on farmers but overlooked those on industry to lure projects from which they could profit. "Many cadres generally feel that water is an inexhaustible natural resource," the report said.

All this has happened since the government undertook the heaviest investment in water resources in history. Since 1949, when the Communist Party seized power, China has built 80,000 dams across most of its key rivers and mobilized tens of millions of workers to drain lakes and marshes and divert watercourses. From 30 to 60 million people have had to relocated to make way for the vast network of reservoirs, dikes and canals that replaced the natural drainage system.

The dams now stand as monuments to the belief that human technology can master nature. But nature is striking back. The Yellow River was kept flowing this year only because all the reservoirs along its length were emptied. The priority was to provide water for Tianjin, China's third largest city, otherwise its industry would have come to a standstill.

In the last 30 years Tianjin has had to go further and further afield to find water. It has already drained the aquifers beneath it, diverted the Luan River in the north and ruined the Bayang Marshes, which lie between it and Beijing. Many planners now fear that the city and its port may be inundated by the sea and are considering construction of artificial marshes for protection.

Water shortages are already ruining the livelihood of millions of Chinese farmers who cannot afford to pay high water rates. Around Tianjin, once a breadbasket of northern China, half a million peasants have been forced to abandon grain production.

In Hubei Province, millions of farmers were unable to water their crops last year when more than 370 reservoirs and 48,000 deep wells ran dry. Many will have to leave grain production altogether, or at least stop planting of rice, wheat and other water-intensive crops.

For decades Tianjin ignored all warnings and invested almost nothing to treat its waste water. In the reservoirs built to serve the city, the water became so badly polluted by industrial discharges and the runoff from agricultural fertilizers that they are now unusable. Polluted water was used to irrigate crops. The buildup of dangerous chemicals has given people in and around Tianjin an alarmingly high rate of stomach and liver cancer.

The city of Cangzhou is yet another example of China's water crisis, sinking almost two metres (two yards) in the last three decades. As the city's flourishing chemical industry sucks the water table dry, the ground slips another few centimetres every year, buckling roads, tilting and toppling old buildings, and prising lampost bases from pavements. "When I was a kid, there was water everywhere," says Cao AnGuo , 62, a retired engineer, standing on a bridge sagging dangerously over a parched river bed. "We never imagined it could run out. Now we know water is our most precious natural resource."

City planners designated Cangzhou "China's third chemical city" several years ago and set about attracting as much investment as possible with no regard for the city's finite water resources. Today, locals suffer illnesses linked to waste water from chemical plants and the water table has fallen so far that salt water from the nearby Bohai Sea has begun to seep in. The neighbouring city of Tianjin has even set up a dam to keep out Cangzhou's contaminated water, state media say.

"They say this water diversion project will solve all our problems," said Cao, staring wistfully over the canal where barges used to transport grain from the fertile south to the cities and armies of the north. "But how can you make people use less water when the population and the economy keeps growing?"

Across China it is the same story of polluted rivers, lakes choked by algae and fisheries destroyed. The annual cost of environmental degradation is put at $50 billion, but this does not give a true indication of the disaster still to come.

Sooner or later, peasants in the western regions will be affected. They now eke out a living from agriculture by using water from the Yellow River pumped up at great expense to the arid fields of the Loess Plateau. If the rich coastal cities bid up the price of this water, as seems likely, these farmers will have to find other employment.

Already the waters of the mighty Yangtze are being apportioned in the same wasteful way as the Yellow River's. Anhui and Jiangsu provinces are diverting water to relieve areas suffering shortages. Shanghai has taken so much underground water that the land beneath it is sinking. The famous Bund now lies well below the waters of the city's Huangpu River.

Some day even the Yangtze may run dry, some experts predicting by 2020. The forests at its headwaters are being cut down, the river is silting up and a series of vast and expensive dams are being built across it and its tributaries.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing is how few people in China are aware of this crisis. No angry environmental groups spring up as they did in Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union, decrying the disappearance or pollution of vital water resources. Few in China dare to admit what has gone wrong or openly condemn the Communist Party for creating this terrible legacy.

The central government has introduced a program in its next five-year plan to safeguard the headwaters of major rivers and intensify tree planting and forest protection. The government has also promised that it will invest in recycling as much waste water as possible. Yet without massive public support, this program, along with any environmental legislation, will prove no more effective than earlier ones.

China's State Environmental Protection Bureau remains a feeble body operating on a tiny budget. It has just 200 permanent staff, compared to 17,000 who work for the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States. They will be ignored if they have to fight alone against the powerful vested interests of the dam building lobby and the officials living high on the profits from polluting factories.