Urban water security in China: Addressing a crippling water shortage

China’s water supply is predicted to run out as early as 2020 in some cities. What brought about this crisis and can the country’s current measures sufficiently address the problem?

China's water crisis

China holds almost 20% of the world’s population but only 7% of its freshwater resources. It currently faces a drastic shortage of water due to urbanisation, overconsumption and pollution. Based on current levels of water usage, it is predicted that many cities in North China may run out of water as soon as 2020.

As the biggest industrial consumers of water are power generation facilities, a water shortage could have devastating effects on China’s electricity generation capabilities and in turn, economic development. Additionally, the country is already starting to observe the effects of water pollution on the population’s health. What led to this crisis and does China have the time and capability to fix it?

What caused China’s water woes?

China’s water resources are spatially distributed in a manner that is inconsistent with the water needs of local populations. North China holds 45% of the total population and encompasses much of the country’s agricultural production, but it only has 19% of the country’s water resources. Additionally, these water resources are dependent on seasonal cycles of precipitation, but the north receives comparatively less rainfall. Climate change further increases uncertainty, with as much as 67% of China’s glacier volume under threat.

According to Wu Huijuan, research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, one of the main challenges for water resource management in China is striking a balance between socio-economic development and sustainable utilisation of water resources. China’s rapid rates of urbanisation, coupled with population growth, does not bode well for sustainable water use.  

Due to a larger population with improved standards of living, domestic water withdrawals have increased due to higher consumption. Water usage for industrial purposes has also increased in all provinces except Beijing, especially for industries such as the extraction and refinement of coal, which is a highly water-intensive process. As many of the coal plants are located in very water-stressed areas, this adds pressure to local water resources.

Poor water resource management also contributes to the issue. China’s artificially low pricing of water has created a disjuncture between actual and market water prices. This has led to the highly inefficient use of water in industry and agriculture.

High stakes for parched China

Discussions surrounding China’s air pollution troubles are oft-heard, but an equally pressing problem is the danger of drinking its water. 85% of China’s river waters were undrinkable in 2015, and 56.4% was unfit for any purpose. This is mainly because governments have not sufficiently enforced regulations for wastewater treatment and polluting industries, with many plants still disposing chemical waste into water bodies.

Increased exposure to polluted water sources has caused populations to be at higher risk of contracting water-borne diseases or other illnesses. Cancer villages, as they are termed, are very much a reality in China, where rates of cancer resulting from water pollution are significantly higher than that of the average population. Other impacts on human health include damage to the reproductive system, birth defects, and neurological and cardiological illnesses.

Domestic economic stability may also be severely affected in the long term. 45% of GDP is in the northern regions, which have water resources per capita that are comparable to the Middle East. Additionally, approximately 45% of electricity generation plants, which are highly dependent on water, are located in these water-stressed territories. Agriculture will also be affected, as most of the arid North China plain depends on aquifers which are quickly diminishing.

Civil unrest on a domestic scale due to environmental concerns is already occurring, such as the 2015 protests in Guangdong over the expansion of a coal-fired power plant. Encouragingly, governments have indeed begun to take the steps towards addressing the problem. However, could this be a case of too little, too late?

Desperate measures: Will they work?

China has in recent years made extensive efforts to conserve its water resources, with up to US$131.1 billion being invested in construction of water conservation projects. The main project that the government has undertaken is the Action Plan for Water Pollution Prevention and Control. The plan sets out ten general measures with deadlines that various government departments are responsible for. Some of the measures include controlling the discharge of pollutants, economic restructuring and relevant law enforcement for environmental violations.

Another scheme that has gained much media attention is the South-North water diversion project, which is the largest in the world. The gargantuan initiative sees the building of waterways to reroute water from the South to feed dry areas in the North, and is estimated to cost around US$75.6 billion.

However, critics say that this project is not a long-term solution. Although it provides northern China with an expanded water supply, this is not sustainable and merely perpetuates the problem of water scarcity. The project could also encourage increased use of water resources by populations in the North, as they are falsely reassured of continued water supplies.

A third solution looks at experimenting with innovative urban design. The ‘Sponge Cities’ initiative’s goal is for 80% of urban areas to absorb and re-use at least 70% of rainwater by 2020, by increasing absorption capacities through permeable surfaces and green infrastructures. Perhaps somewhat ironically, China has experienced large-scale floods due to insufficient drainage infrastructure and subsequent waterlogging, and this initiative would also help to address this.

However, funding is turning out to be a challenge. More than US$12 billion has been spent on the project to date, with 15-20% of funding coming from the central government. There is little investor interest in the private sector due to concerns about weak regulations and inadequate enforcement.

The future of water resource management in China

Moving forward, it is paramount to balance China’s rapid development with sustainable water use. In the energy sector for example, this would entail steps such as enhancing energy efficiency in water supply, diversifying energy supply methods away from coal and investing more into data collection in order to better understand the water-energy nexus.

Another solution to focus on is conservation. Investing in natural solutions of small and medium-sized catchments, for example, holds various benefits. By protecting forests and encouraging more efficient agricultural practices in certain areas, sediment and nutrient pollution can be significantly decreased in smaller catchments. This would improve water quality for at least 150 million people.

A major challenge is to ensure effective implementation of policies. As pointed out by Dr Wu, different cities in China have different risk characteristics and face different challenges. Local governments should hence be given more resources to address water pollution, so that improved technologies can be installed and more inspections can take place.

There are already steps being taken towards enforcing regulations. China has recently imposed punitive tax rates on businesses that surpass their water usage quotas. Citizens are also able to play a part thanks to an app called Blue Map, which allows users to shame companies that flout environmental laws, by uploading photos directly to a government platform.

Though these challenges exist, the steps that have been taken towards addressing the issue are promising. With coordination amongst the governments and citizens, and continued investment in necessary infrastructure and conservation, China may yet be able to successfully tackle the issue.


This piece was written by Prethika Nair.