Environment, Talking Point

In need of water

The recent drought points to serious water problems

In need of water

Fish out of water: The worst drought to hit China in 50 years has seen reservoirs disappear

According to Chinese numerology, ‘eight’ is associated with ‘wealth’. But wealth is the last thing that farmers are expecting in the eight Chinese provinces currently dealing with drought.

How serious is the drought?

It is the worst dry spell to hit China in half a century. Henan province is particularly hard hit. It hasn’t had rain for over 110 days and is experiencing its worst water shortages since 1951. The other seven provinces face serious predicaments too. In total, it is estimated that the drought has left 4.3 million people without water.

To put this in a human context: Li Qiuxian from Zhanggou Village in Henan told the Shanghai Post that he has not bathed or brushed his teeth for over three months. In order to save water all six of his family members are called together each morning and share a small bowl of water to wash their faces. Li also told the reporter he has not washed his clothes since the drought began.

What are the agricultural consequences?

Henan accounts for 25% of China’s wheat crop. The other seven provinces (Anhui, Shandong, Hebei, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Gansu and Jiangsu) are all important wheat-growing areas too. All told, the Ministry of Agriculture reckons that the drought has disrupted wheat production on 9.7 million hectares of land. That represents about 43% of the nation’s winter wheat supply. Wheat prices have risen 6% in the past fortnight in the wake of the dry conditions.

What’s being done?

The central government has ordered Rmb300 million ($44 million) of relief spending, to help those people in the affected areas, and bring in necessary supplies. About 5 billion cubic metres of water have also been diverted from the Yellow River – the Ministry of Agriculture claims this has irrigated about half the wheat fields affected.

But diverting water from the Yellow River cannot go on indefinitely. The water resources minister, Chen Lei claims the river is already depleted by 20-40%.

In order to encourage rain, the authorities have fired 2,392 rockets into the sky, loaded with cloud-seeding chemicals. Between 5mm and 26mm of rain fell on drought-hit areas as a result. But as one villager in Henan told the China Daily, the situation there will only improve if it rains for 15 days at a stretch.

The shortage of rainfall has prompted at least one welcome and far-sighted measure: drought-resistant wheat seeds are now being issued to farmers. But that won’t save this years’s crop. Officials now admit China is unlikely to reach last year’s wheat output of 109 million tonnes.

Is China a dry country?

Not exactly. According to UNESCO guidelines, China faces only moderate shortages of water. It has about 2050 cubic metres of water per capita. The problem is really one of geography. China is relatively water rich in the south and parched in the north. The south has 81% of China’s water resources, while the north only 19%. The disparity is made worse, when you consider the north has 37% of the country’s population.

Beijing seems pretty dry.

It is indeed. Somewhat like Las Vegas, it is nonsensically-located. Who would choose today to site a mega-city of 17 million in the middle of what is often a desert-like landscape? Too late to change now, of course, so tactics like cloud-seeding are having to take the strain. Much of this goes on around Beijing, with the local authorities regularly firing rockets into the sky to conjure what precipitation they can.

But it doesn’t suffice. Beijing consumes around 3.5 billion cubic metres of water per year and has been forced to run down its acquifer (somewhat suicidally) for years. It is also buying water from the south. A $2 billion watercourse recently opened to transport water from Hebei.

This forms part of a grand project, know as the South-to-North Water Diversion: a $62 billion mega-scheme to transfer water from three points on the Yangtze River to the dry north (including Beijing). Work is well underway on two of the routes (the eastern and central) and is scheduled to be finished by 2014. But according to the BBC there has been a delay on the 1,300km central route, and many believe the western route may be an engineering feat too far, even in Chinese terms. The original idea for the project came from Mao, who first suggested “borrowing” water from the south.

So China clearly lacks water. What about its quality?

This is, if anything, an even sorrier issue. It is estimated that each year 25 cubic kilometres of water is rendered unfit for consumption due to pollution. Indeed, experts from the China Recycle Research Centre reckon that 90% of urban acquifer water has been rendered unfit for drinking. Along the Huaihe River in Henan province the media has identified instances of ‘cancer villages’ where the water supply has been poisoned by chemical waste. Think Erin Brockovich, to a factor of ten.

What are the solutions?

Conservation is critical. According to the China Daily, 65% of the country’s water is used for farming. But only 45% of that water is consumed by crops – the rest is wasted. In the industrial sector only 40% of water is recycled versus 85% in developed countries. Cities like Beijing only recycle a fraction of their water, so there is a real need for more water treatment plants.

But price is also key. Wang Hao, a director at the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research told Cnwest.com that the country’s water is priced too cheap. For example, Beijing’s water is priced at Rmb3.7 per tonne and Wang thinks it should be at Rmb11.42. That would discourage waste and bring China into line with more developed nations.

Does China have much of a track record in water management?

It is difficult to understand Chinese history, without grasping how the country has managed water. The country’s first emperor, Qin Shi-huangdi unified China in 221 BC largely thanks to irrigation systems. So important were the irrigation channels that he declared his dynasty would rule through ‘water. ’ Since black was the colour then associated with water, he decided to don only black robes.

Around 2,000 years earlier (yes, earlier), legend holds that the Xia Dynasty was also founded thanks to the first ruler’s 13 year effort to “master water”. This ability of China’s early rulers to master the water supply is a lesson not lost on the country’s current government.

Are there any positive signs?

Perhaps, especially in Beijing’s desire to find a solution. The nation’s leaders view the current lack of rainfall as further evidence of climate change. Wu Jianmin, a senior adviser to the foreign ministry was quoted recently in the New York Times saying China now wants to work more closely with the US to tackle climate challenges. “We all understand we don’t have much time left. We’ve got to work together,” said Wu.

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