In 1789, English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge penned this famous line in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem that describes the deathly journey of a mariner’s ship. After being cursed for shooting an albatross, the mariner sees his crew slowly die of dehydration, only to be redeemed at the end of the poem for realizing the sins he has committed.
China, interestingly enough, is in this same precarious situation: it has been inadvertently cursed by the fruits of quick economic growth and urbanization. As a result of its explosive growth and recent droughts, China’s water supply is increasingly in danger. This threatens to choke China’s industrial and population growth.
China’s Water Crisis
China is home to 270,550 sq km of water. Unfortunately, this water is heavily polluted, threatened by drought, or being overused. According to a March 2009 study by China Research and Intelligence, over 70% of Chinese rivers, lakes, and seashores, and 90% of its underground water supply in urban areas are polluted.
The main cause of this pollution is China’s unbridled economic growth. Chinese firms dump their waste products into the water without regard for the environment, which makes the water unusable. Additionally, spills and accidents like the one at the Jilin chemical plant in 2005 exacerbate this cycle.
Another threat to the Chinese water supply is drought. For the past few years, the water table in northern China has been falling roughly five feet a year. These droughts, currently, show no signs of abating and are exerting extreme pressure on China’s water supply.
The final major threat to China’s water supply is overuse. China is an agricultural powerhouse, which poses a particular threat to its water supply due to excess irrigation. According to a Swiss Re focus report on water availability, between 1850 and 1980, China lost 543 medium to large sized lakes from irrigation. Today, as the result of excess irrigation, the Yellow river no longer reaches the sea.
Moreover, demographic changes will increase China’s water use to unsustainable levels. China’s population is projected to rise from roughly 1.3 billion to 8.5 billion by 2025. Assuming current water use per-capita remains constant, China’s withdrawal of freshwater supplies will increase from 549.76 cu km/yr to 3527 cu km/yr, a 541% increase.
Additionally, China’s changing diet will pressure water supplies even more. The Chinese consume a primarily vegetarian diet; however, westernization has shifted her diet from being vegetable based to meat based. To put this into perspective, it takes roughly 1000 liters of water to grow a bushel wheat, but 15,000 liters of water to produce a kg of beef. Clearly, this trend will pressure China’s already dwindling water supplies even more.
Contributor Richard Graham