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Rapid Development Threatens Water Resources, Experts Say

By Hye Jeong

Rapid drawdown of China's water supplies due to its burgeoning economy and population, combined with weak enforcement of water pollution laws, threaten to undermine the country's environmental health and may lead to political instability and economic hardship, experts said this week.

Together, the two sides of the water policy coin -- quality and quantity -- represents the most pressing environmental issue facing China in the early 21st century, said Elizabeth Economy, author of the recently published book,
The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future

"To see where China will be in 10, 20 years, you have to understand what it's doing to the environment," noted Economy, who is director of Asian studies at Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.

With its new status as a world economic player, China is placing unprecedented strain on water and other natural resources as demand for cars, electronic appliances and other consumer goods soars. Compounding the problem is that statutes designed to protect the country's water and air are inconsistently enforced given the country's large size, roughly equal that of the United States, and longstanding bureaucratic hurdles.

The U.S. EPA and a growing contingent of nonprofit groups have focused efforts on China in recent years, particularly on fossil fuel use. Calls have also come for increased congressional funding for the joint U.S.-China Water Resources Management Program and for relaxation of U.S. restrictions on aid to China.

According to a 2003 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, water use in China has increased most dramatically over the past 20 years, as new industries and modernizing households have joined farm irrigation as major water use sectors.

In northern China -- where traditional agricultural water users face increased competition from industry and households -- drawdowns on water supply may deplete major groundwater sources by 2030, according to USDA, which studied water use from 1980 to 1996. Three river basins of particular concern, according to USDA, are the Hai, the Huai, and the Yellow.

Part of the problem is that the Chinese government lacks policies establishing clear water rights, which in general belong to the government but are distributed at the discretion of local officials, said Jennifer Turner, senior project associate at China Environment Forum, part of the Smithsonian Institute's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

"Water is something people fight over," she said.

China has four primary laws governing water, which are intended to work with the nation's comprehensive water law established in 1998. The most sweeping of these laws delegates responsibility for pricing, rights allocation and conservation programs to the national Ministry of Water. Other agencies, such as the State Environmental Protection Administration, govern water resource protection, industrial wastewater discharges and environmental assessment for projects that could impact water quality or quantity.

But with limited resources and staff, the Chinese environment agency is limited in its ability to regulate water use across the entire country. As such, regulators are aided by nongovernmental organizations, environmental activists, local officials and even journalists who have exposed practices that are environmentally destructive. Such private-sector activism has resulted in local government officials stopping two proposed dam projects, according to Economy.

Ironically, one dam project touted as a solution to energy, flooding and
water supply problems -- the $24 billion Three Gorges Dam -- has come under harsh criticism from environmental groups worldwide. While the government has touted the project as creating the world's largest freshwater reservoir, environmentalists say 60 percent of its water will not be suitable for treatment because two-thirds of the 90 tributaries feeding the reservoir are severely polluted.

"In a political system like China's -- without true checks and balances -- the potential for corruption or bad projects to get built is high," Turner noted.

Researchers have suggested several approaches to stem China's growing water crisis. Improved conservation within the agricultural sector would require additional research on growing crops with less water, according to Frank Rijsberman, director general of the International Water Management Institute, who has written about Chinese water policy. Ratcheting down water use in the industrial sector may be more difficult, as the country's growing industrial economy is generally viewed as a positive development by the government, experts say.

However, China is growing more aware of the fragile relationship between industry and water. In March, government officials shut off water supplies to 1 million people after synthetic ammonia and nitrogen from the Sichuan General Chemical Factory contaminated the Tuo River in the densely populated Sichuan province.