Drying Up: How Should China Deal with Growing Threat of Water Scarcity and Drought?

With its massive population, China has focused on huge infrastructure projects to address the growing problems of water scarcity and drought. In the spirit of a grand scheme that dates back to early medieval Chinese times, China’s government is now looking to build the South-North Transfer, a vast new water pipeline that would transport massive amounts from the country’s comparatively water-rich south to its more water-starved north, according to a ClimateWire report.

Pressed by population growth, climate change, and rapid industrialization, China’s now facing a water crisis, one that feats of large-scale engineering alone will not solve, according to “Drying Up,” a new Asian Development Bank report.

Strategies and Challenges in Addressing China’s Water Crisis

The incidence of frequent and severe droughts is on the rise in China, yet China’s increasing demand for water, over-extraction of water, and inefficient use pose the greatest threats to sustainable management. “Over-extraction and inefficient use of water resources are creating water shortages in cities and putting large populations at risk when a drought occurs, the ADB notes in a press release.

“The country’s traditional approach of building more infrastructure is not enough to fill the widening gap between water supply and demand,” said Qingfeng Zhang, ADB’s Lead Water Resources Specialist and one of the authors of the report. “An integrated water resources management approach is needed to bring balance and prepare safety net supplies for droughts.”

The Chinese government has been trying to reduce Chinese society’s water use, but doing so is proving very difficult. Local governments are not taking advantage of opportunities to mitigate the impacts of these extreme weather events. Meanwhile, the rapidly industrializing country is experiencing “increasingly frequent and intense droughts.”

“Between 2001 and 2006, over 400 cities in the PRC suffered perennial water shortages, and 11 suffered severe water shortages,” the report authors point out. “The 2011 drought, which affected the Yangtze River, left 3.5 million people with minimal drinking water. The 2009 drought affected 60 million people and compromised 6.5 million hectares of land. Between 2004 and 2007, droughts cost the PRC an estimated $8 billion of annual direct economic losses.”

Mitigating the Effects of Drought, Shortages: Disaster Preparedness, Demand Management, Efficient Use

Drawing on experience inside China, in “Drying Up” the ADB water resources team proposes a three-pronged approach for reducing the impacts of drought in China.

  • Strengthen its disaster preparedness, including risk monitoring and early warning systems, to reduce response time and costs incurred by losses, damages, and rebuilding.
  • Manage demand through water savings, building better capture and storage facilities, re-evaluating tariffs, and boosting water efficiencies in agriculture, industry, and cities.
  • Take an integrated approach to water management at the municipal level based on water allocation schemes and monitoring that ensure secure supplies for nature, people, and the economy.

The authors draw on the experience of Guiyang residents in southwestern Guizhou province to illustrate the social, economic, and ecological benefits such an approach offers. A severe drought affected the city in 2010, leaving people without drinking water. Some 170,000 needed grain rations to survive.

The municipality would have had 20% more water during the drought had Guiyang government officials required the use of water-saving fixtures in residential and commercial buildings, imposed higher industrial water efficiency standards, and reduced system leakage.

According to the report, “Demand management alongside a system that monitors flows and water allocation can propel the country to greater resilience. “This would significantly close the supply-demand gap, which cannot be done by infrastructure alone.


Graphic courtesy: ADB – Water for All

Andrew Burger
Andrew Burger
A product of the New York City public school system, Andrew Burger went on to study geology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, work in the wholesale money and capital markets for a major Japanese bank and earn an MBA in finance.

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  1. It seems to me that almost everyone is talking about oil or water scarcity but we somehow forget that there is a number of other scarce resources whose complete depletion would pose a serious threat to some industries and especially to the world of information technology. I am really concerned about whether the scientists will be able to find an effective solution to this problem other than the devastation of one of Earth’s most valuable natural resources – the ocean as suggested in the article.

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