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China's Water Woes: Past, Present, and Future

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Water is back in the China-related news lately - and that's almost always a bad sign. Most recently, we have had stories about the grinding North China drought; this may be the worst since the late 50s drought that exacerbated the Great Leap Forward famine. A bit earlier, we had the report of credible (though unproven) research suggesting that last May's catastrophic Sichuan earthquake may have been triggered by pressure from the water stored behind Zipingpu Dam. (See here for an early report, and then the slightly later piece, with more about the key Chinese scientist involved, by Evan Osnos of the New Yorker). Late in January, Jiang Gaoming of the Chinese Academy of Sciences released a sobering piece (China Dialogue, January 22, 2009) about how accelerating the construction of dams in China's Southwest -- part of the P.R.C.'s ambitious stimulus package to fight the global recession -- is worsening the already considerable environmental and social risks involved, with some projects beginning before any Environmental Impact Assessments have been completed. Such a confluence of events is enough to make a historian think back -- in my case, to about six weeks ago.

This when I had the task of writing the "Afterword" for a forthcoming book China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance. Trying to figure out what things about 2008 to emphasize, as that year was coming to an end, water kept winding up at the center. Here's an excerpt that takes on new relevance when read with 2009 headlines in mind:

"The Olympics briefly focused attention on China's serious air pollution problems... But China's water woes are at least equally pressing, and it may be easier to see what effects they will have. Two little-noted news items from near the end of the year may illuminate that -- after we review some background.

Water has always been a problem in China, and effective control of it has been associated with both personal heroism and legitimate sovereignty for as far back as our records go.... But water scarcity is probably an even greater problem than excesses, especially in the modern period. Surface and near-surface water per capita in China today is roughly ¼ of the global average, and worse yet, it is distributed very unevenly. The North and Northwest, with over half the country's arable land, have about 7 percent of its surface water; the North China Plain, in particular, has 10 to12 percent of the per capita supply for the country as a whole, or less than 3 percent of the global average. China also has unusually violent seasonal fluctuations in water supply; both rainfall and river levels change much more over the course of the year than in either Europe or North America. While the most famous of China's roughly 85,000 dams are associated with hydro-power (about which more in a minute), a great many exist mostly to store water during the peak flow of rivers for use at other times of year.

The People's Republic has made enormous efforts to address these problems -- and achieved impressive short-term successes that are now extremely vulnerable. Irrigated acreage has more than tripled since 1950, with the vast majority of those gains coming in the North and Northwest; this has turned the notorious "land of famine" of the 1850-1950 period into a crucial grain surplus area, and contributed mightily to improving per capita food supplies for a national population that has more than doubled. Much of that, however, has come through the massive use of deep wells bringing up underground water far faster than it can be replaced; and a great deal of water is wasted, especially in agriculture, where costs to farmers are kept artificially low. (Chinese agriculture is not necessarily more wasteful in this regard than agriculture in many other places -- and certainly the deviations from market prices are no worse than in the supposedly market-driven United States -- but its limited supplies make waste a much more immediate problem.) Water tables are now dropping rapidly in much of North China, and water shortages are a frequent fact of life for most urban residents. (Beijing suffers fewer water shortages, but only because it can commandeer the water resources of a large surrounding rural area included in the municipality.) Various technologies that would reduce water waste exist, but most are expensive. More realistic pricing of irrigation water would help -- but probably at the price of driving millions of marginal farmers to the wall, and greatly accelerating the already rapid rush of people to the cities. Consequently, adoption of both of these palliatives is likely to remain slow.

Instead, the state has chosen a massive three-pronged effort to move water from South to North China -- by far the biggest construction project in history, if it is completed. Part of the Eastern section began operating this year, and the Central section is also underway (though the December 31 Wall Street Journal reported a delay due to environmental concerns). The big story in the long run, however is the Western line, which will tap the enormous water resources of China's far Southwest -- Tibet alone has over 30 percent of China's fresh water supply, most of it coming from the annual run-off of some water from Himalayan glaciers. (This is an aspect of the Tibet question one rarely hears about, but rest assured that all the engineers in China's leadership, including Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, are very much aware of it. Tibetans, meanwhile, not only see a precious resource going elsewhere when their water is tapped: they regard many of the lakes and rivers to be dammed as sacred.) The engineering challenges in this mountainous region are enormous, but so are the potential rewards, both in water supply and in hydropower - the electricity water can generate is directly proportional to how far it falls into the turbines, and the Yangzi, for instance, completes 90 percent of its drop to the sea before it even enters China proper. The risks, as our two stories make clear, are social and political as well as environmental...

Call the two news stories the "double glacier shock." On December 9, Asia Times Online reported that China was planning to go ahead with a major hydroelectric dam and water diversion scheme on the great bend of the Yarlong Tsangpo River in Tibet. The hydro project is planned to generate 40,000 megawatts -- almost twice as much as Three Gorges. But the water which this dam would impound and turn northwards currently flows south into Assam to form the Brahmaputra, which in turn joins the Ganges to form the world's largest river delta, supplying much of the water to a basin with over 300 million inhabitants. While South Asians have worried for some time that China might divert this river, the Chinese government had denied any such intentions, reportedly doing so again when Hu Jintao visited New Delhi in 2006. But when Indian Prime Minister Singh raised the issue again during his January, 2008 visit to Beijing, the tone had changed, with Wen Jiabao supposedly replying that water scarcity is a threat to the "very survival of the Chinese nation," and providing no assurances. And so it is -- not only for China, but for its neighbors. Most of Asia's major rivers - the Yellow, the Yangzi, the Mekong, Salween, Irrawaddy, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Sutlej, and Indus -- draw on the glaciers of the Himalayas, and all of these except the Ganges have their source on the Chinese side of the border. Forty-seven percent of the world's people, from Karachi to Tianjin, draw on those rivers.

In short the possible damage to China's neighbors from this approach to its water and energy needs is staggeringly large -- and the potential to raise political tensions is commensurate. Previous water diversion projects affecting the source of the Mekong have already drawn protests from Vietnam (and from environmental groups), and a project on the Nu River (which becomes the Salween in Thailand and Burma) was suspended in 2004. But this project has vastly larger implications for both Chinese and foreigners. If, as some people think, the twenty-first century will be the century of conflicts over water, Tibet may well be ground zero.

Of course, China is hardly the only country that has ever appropriated water (not to mention other resources) that others see as theirs; I am writing in Southern California, made much more livable by denying Mexico Colorado River water it is theoretically guaranteed by treaty. And there is also something to be said, environmentally, for anything that provides China with lots of electricity and isn't coal...

But that's where the second glacier shock of 2008 comes in -- news that this crucial water source is disappearing faster than anyone had previously realized. A report published in Geophysical Research Letters on November 22 noted that recent samples taken from Himalayan glaciers were missing two markers that are usually easy to find, reflecting open air nuclear tests in 1951-2 and 1962-3. The reason: the glacier apparently had lost any ice built up since the mid-1940s...And since the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the Himalayan highlands will warm at about twice the average global rate over the next century, there is every reason to think the situation will get worse. One estimate has 1/3 of the Himalayan glaciers disappearing by 2050, and 2/3 by 2100. If that scenario is right, then even if all the engineering challenges of South-North water diversion can be solved, and even if China undertakes and gets away with taking water away from hundreds of millions of people in South and Southeast Asia, the resulting fix might not last very long..."

This is a shortened version of a piece that first appeared (with a list of and links to additional reading) at "The China Beat".