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China Is Running Out Of Water

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The water available for use is thus atrocious. Song Lanhe, chief engineer for urban water-quality monitoring at the housing ministry, says only half the water sources in cities are safe to drink. More than half the groundwater in the north China plain, according to the land ministry, cannot be used for industry, while seven-tenths is unfit for human contact, ie, even for washing. In late 2012 the Chinese media claimed that 300 corpses were found floating in the Yellow River near Lanzhou, the latest of roughly 10,000 victims--most of them (according to the local police) suicides--whose bodies have been washing downstream since the 1960s.

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You'd think they would develop decent water processing technology.

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".

It seems like there should be a simpler way.

Bernard Baruch quote if all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail

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