China will need more than infrastructure to meet water scarcity -- report

Nathanael Massey, E&E reporter

Published: Monday, April 23, 2012

China has long harnessed its water resources through massive feats of engineering, from the world's largest artificial waterway in the seventh century to the Three Gorges Dam today. In the face of rapid development, it is currently looking to a vast new pipeline project, the South-North Transfer, as a means to feed thirsty cities and industries.

Yet the combined pressures of climate change, population growth and industrial expansion have confronted China with a water crisis that will take more than infrastructure to solve, according to a new report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). To meet those challenges, the country will need to adjust its demand for water -- a potentially painful step that the national government is only just beginning to take.

Description: Chinese drought

Conservation isn't yet a water strategy in China -- but as droughts worsen, researchers say, efficiency and water planning will become more important than new infrastructure. Photo courtesy of the World Meteorological Organization.

The report, titled "Drying Up: What to Do About Droughts in the People's Republic of China," advocates a preparatory, rather than reactionary, approach to future water crises, including better risk management and a prioritization of water conservation before, rather than during, a scarcity event.

It comes in the wake of two of China's most severe droughts on record -- one that swept through the southwest region in 2010 and a second, in 2011, that gripped the Yangtze River Basin.

The droughts catapulted water scarcity to the forefront of China's agenda -- the country has allocated $608 billion through 2020 to renovate its water infrastructure. But as the ADB report cautions, money alone won't be enough to solve the crisis if the government proves unwilling to look beyond its traditional approach of building bigger, better infrastructure.

China "must apply its engineering and technical strengths to saving water," the report notes. "Managing consumption not only requires technical solutions but also strong institutions and planning."

Treat the cause, not the symptoms

Though the 2011 drought resulted from an uncharacteristically dry rainy season in the south of the country. It was exacerbated by increased water consumption from northern cities and industries, said Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The imbalance highlights another growing demand: energy.

"Energy development is affecting water resources in China in a big way," she said. "It's not just agriculture and cities that are drawing on supply -- water also plays a big role in mining and burning coal." Coal is China's No. 1 source of energy.

Much of the country's new energy infrastructure is appearing in the north, where water is less abundant, Turner said.

While the ADB report acknowledges the need for infrastructure solutions to these imbalances, it points out that demand-side solutions have so far been underutilized.

"Planners typically consider conservation or demand management an additional way that the population can 'help,' but conservation is not perceived as a real supply option ... that can be reliably evaluated and compared for cost," the report notes.

A system of "nonstructural" strategies such as efficiency and conservation measures should be mixed in with structural measures like irrigation schemes and drainage facilities for a more cost-effective means of heading off future water scarcity, it notes.

As an example, the report points to Guiyang province, the region hit hardest by the drought in 2011. At the height of the event, 725,000 of Guiyang's residents were left without drinking water and 170,000 had to receive emergency food aid.

Had demand management programs for urban domestic users and industry been implemented in advance, the province would have had 20 percent more water in reserve to help it cope with the drought, the report found.

Toward an integrated approach

Water security affects all levels of Chinese society, from farmers in the Yangtze Basin to industrial development, said Robert Kimball, an outreach associate with the World Resources Institute who writes about the intersection of water and commerce in China.

"Last year's drought impacted a number of different sectors in some unpredictable ways," Kimball said. Because water reserves were low, "production of electricity from the Three Gorges Dam" -- with an installed capacity of 2,100 megawatts -- "was down 20 percent as a result of low water levels."

Meanwhile, the Yangtze River's daily freight traffic was interrupted when its falling water levels made ships' passage impossible, he said.

In the wake of these combined impacts, the Chinese government has taken some steps toward the kind of multilevel approach laid out in the ADB report. In its latest five-year plan, the Ministry of Water Resources has stipulated that total groundwater extraction will be strictly controlled and deep aquifer exploitation will be banned.

It also encourages the creation of more self-sufficient, or "circular," economies, particularly in regions that have historically imported large quantities of water.

"The government has mandated that industries to adjust water intake by 30 percent," pointed out the Wilson Center's Turner. "The drought could be a wake-up call. It'll be fascinating to see how they respond, both on a federal and provincial level."

"China's already taking an aggressive approach to curbing its emission" with nitrogen caps and regional carbon targets, she added. "It would be great to see them take that kind of proactive approach to water, as well."