Environment

All’s not well

Why China’s water table is in such a perilous state

Not raining buckets

Next time you are travelling in north China, keep an eye out for cracks in your hotel room wall. Not that WiC wishes to create undue alarm – but your building might just be about to give way.

This is something that the Chinese media has been warning about for a while. According to Caijing magazine, so much water has been pumped up from the underground water table that land is subsiding, and huge ‘funnel-shaped’ depressions are showing up across the region. In one case in Hebei a crack 10 centimetres wide opened up for eight kilometres, with some parts as deep as 10 metres, damaging many houses.

Two million motorised wells now nourish the thirsty fields of the North China Plain, pumping out water much faster than nature can put it back. They have helped turn the area into the nation’s granary, turning on its head the old maxim that ‘food from the south will feed the north’.

But once that water runs out, the record wheat harvests could become a thing of the past. Much of the region may be forced to rely on rain to irrigate crops.

The experience of Xidianzi village in Hebei is a typical one. Village elders remember a time when a well just 25 metres deep would strike water. But the water table has fallen so far in the past three decades that villagers now have to dig at least 120 metres, and the subsidence is afflicting the entire community.

“In recent years the south end [of the village] sank at least 40 centimetres,” villager Dong Jinghua told the Xiaoxiang Morning Herald. The village used to take water from the Li River, a tributary of the Haihe, but now relies exclusively on wells.

During the Mao era a mentality of battling with nature was adopted – “we must control the Haihe River” was the mantra – and in the 1960s reservoirs were constructed so that farms on the flood plain would no longer risk being submerged. The plan worked so well that the Li River nearly dried up, and that’s when the well-digging really got going.

What little water does make it into the Li River now goes to the local paper mill, and the resulting effluent is too toxic to be used for farming. “It is black and very smelly,” explained Dong.

Water-intensive industries like power plants, textile factories and steel mills are competing with communities and farms for water. The drought in the country’s southwest is demonstrating the government’s resolve to provide drinking water at all costs, but at the expense of factories and farms (see WiC54).

North China’s largest freshwater lake, Baiyangdian, is another casualty of profligate water use. Known as the ‘kidney of north China’, the lake helps moderate the region’s climate and provides a vital habitat for migrating birds. But it has dried out several times as a result of the Haihe River reservoir-building campaign and local authorities are struggling to replicate the services that nature once provided for free. They are now having to pipe in water to maintain the lake’s level.

Part of the government’s answer to the water crisis is to go back to the ‘struggle’ with nature, and even a massive engineering scheme conceived by Mao himself. The ‘south-north’ water transfer project aims to send water from the Yangtze River to the parched northern plains. But like the earlier plan to control the Haihe River, there are knock-on effects. The once mighty Yangtze already suffers from chronic dryness too. Meanwhile the city of Tianjin has opted for desalination efforts (see WiC20), on the grounds that its own rivers are too polluted to draw water.

Water experts have called for the government to prioritise water conservation. Others argue that only an increase in price will encourage its more sparing use. Water scarcity is fast becoming one of the most important factors limiting China’s growth – and the country’s leaders look likely to be forced to make some hard decisions.


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