Water: all dried up

Watch the video, 6.22 min, published on The Economist, Oct 12, 2013.

CHINA endures choking smog, mass destruction of habitats and food poisoned with heavy metals. But ask an environmentalist what is the country’s biggest problem, and the answer is always the same. “Water is the worst,” says Wang Tao, of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre in Beijing, “because of its scarcity, and because of its pollution.” “Water,” agrees Pan Jiahua, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “People can’t survive in a desert.” Wang Shucheng, a former water minister, once said: “To fight for every drop of water or die: that is the challenge facing China.” 

He was not exaggerating. A stock image of China is a fisherman and his cormorant on a placid lake. The reality is different. The country uses 600 billion cubic metres (21,200 billion cubic feet) of water a year, or about 400 cubic metres a person—one-quarter of what the average American uses and less than half the international definition of water stress …//

… Every drop is precious:

The best answer would be to improve the efficiency with which water is used. Only about 40% of water used in industry is recycled, half as much as in Europe. The rest is dumped in rivers and lakes. Wang Zhansheng of Tsinghua University argues that China is neglecting its urban water infrastructure (sewerage, pipes and water-treatment plants), leading to more waste. Water prices in most cities are only about a tenth of the level in big European cities, yet the government is reluctant to raise them, for fear of a popular backlash.

The result is that China’s “water productivity” is low. For each cubic metre of water used, China gets $8-worth of output. The average for European countries is $58 per cubic metre. Of course, these countries are richer—but they are not seven times richer.

Rather than making sensible and eminently doable reforms in pricing and water conservation, China is focusing on increasing supplies. For decades the country has been ruled by engineers, many of them hydraulic engineers (including the previous president, Hu Jintao). Partly as a result, Communist leaders have reacted to water problems by building engineering projects on a mind-boggling scale.

The best known such project is the Three Gorges dam on the Yangzi. But this year an even vaster project is due to start. Called the South-North Water Diversion Project, it will link the Yangzi with the Yellow River, taking water from the humid south to the parched north. When finished, 3,000km of tunnels and canals will have been drilled through mountains, across plains and under rivers. Its hydrologic and environmental consequences could be enormously harmful.

The project links China’s two great rivers through three new channels. The eastern, or downstream one is due to open by the end of this year (see map). It would pump 14.8 billion cubic metres along 1,160km of canals, using in part a 1,500-year-old waterway, the Grand Canal. The water pumped so far has been so polluted that a third of the cost has gone on water treatment. A midstream link, with 1,300km of new canals, is supposed to open by October 2014. That is also when work on the most ambitious and controversial link, the upstream one across the fragile Himalayan plateau, is due to begin. Eventually the South-North project is intended to deliver 45 billion cubic metres of water a year and to cost a total of 486 billion yuan ($79.4 billion). It would be cheaper to desalinate the equivalent amount of seawater.

The environmental damage could be immense. The Yangzi river is already seriously polluted. Chen Jiyu of the Chinese Academy of Engineering told South Weekly, a magazine, in 2012 that the project so far has reduced the quantity of plankton in the Yangzi by over two-thirds and the number of benthic organisms (those living on the river bottom) by half. And that was before it even opened. Ma Jun, China’s best known environmental activist, says the government’s predilection for giant engineering projects only makes matters worse, “causing us to hit the limits of our water resources”.

But the biggest damage could be political. Proposed dams on the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra, Mekong and other rivers are bound to have an impact on downstream countries, including India, Bangladesh and Vietnam. The Chinese say they would take only 1% of the run-off from the giant Brahmaputra. But if all these projects were operational—and the engineering challenges of one or two of them are so daunting that even the Chinese might balk at them—they would affect the flow of rivers on which a billion people depend. Hence the worries for regional stability. And all this would increase China’s water supplies by a mere 7%. The water crisis is driving China to desperate but ultimately unhelpful measures
(full text).

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