By Taro Ichikawa
China is girding up its loins to stave off a serious water crisis by 2030 when population is expected to rise to 1.6 billion. With water consumption soaring, per capita water resources will drop to 1,760 cubic meters – perilously close to 1,700 cubic metres, the internationally recognized benchmark for water shortages, according to Chinese experts.
Li Rui, head of the Soil Conservation Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), warned already ten years ago that if no effective measures are taken, the country is likely to suffer a serious water crisis in the future. Since then, Beijing has been exploring possible ways and means to face the challenge.
China Daily reported on June 11, 2012 that “by the end of 2012, a water resource allocation plan for 25 rivers that flow through more than one province will be launched, limiting the amount of water that can be taken from the rivers by each of the provinces.”
The gravity of the problem lies in the fact that water resources are unevenly distributed in China, with northern parts of the country deficient in water, and southern parts rich in the essential element.
The areas south of the Yangtze River, China’s longest, which account for only 36.5 percent of the country’s total territory, have 80.9 percent of its total water resources. However the areas north of the Yangtze, which make up 63.5 percent of China, possess only 19.1 percent of total water resources.
According to the China’s Soil Conservation Institute, the combined area of the three valleys of the Yellow, Haihe and Huaihe rivers accounts for 13.4 percent of the country’s total territory. Arable land, population, and gross domestic product (GDP) of the three river valleys comprise 39 percent, 35 percent, and 32 percent respectively of the national totals. But water resources in the three river valleys account for only 7.7 percent of the national total.
Per capita water resource in the three valleys stands at 500 cubic meters, so that there are areas where the water shortage is already grave.
Most stringent regulations
Referring to the new plan, Chen Ming, deputy head of the Water Resources Department at the Ministry of Water Resources said: “We are doing our best to accelerate the process (of adequate regulations). Hopefully, the plan will come out by August.”
China Daily said: “The water resource allocation plan is one of the moves the ministry has taken to promote the implementation of the most stringent regulations in Chinese water resource management.”
The plan is expected to be based on the regulation announced in January 2012 by the State Council, which set four “must-complete” targets by 2030. These include limiting the country’s annual total water consumption to less than 700 billion cubic meters. The plan also envisages limiting the scale of water exploitation, improving the efficiency of water usage and curbing water pollution throughout the country.
“There are no other countries that have set such detailed targets to restrict their own development by limiting usage of water resources,” Chen said.
Presently, China’s average per capita water capacity amounts to 2,100 cubic metres, which comprises only 28 percent of the world’s per capita level. The annual average water shortfall is 50 billion cubic metres, according to the ministry. It also points out that in contrast with the severe water shortage the efficiency of water usage is far below the world’s leading level.
“If we don’t change the way we use water resources, by 2030 the country’s average per capita water capacity will be only 1,730 cubic metres,” said Chen. Anything below 1,700 cubic metres is deemed as “falling short with water”, according to the standard set by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
According to international common practices, the exploitable water resources of a country must be less than 40 percent of its total water resources, otherwise the ecosystem will be largely damaged.
Chen said the first target in the regulation – the figure of 700 billion cubic metres annual total water consumption – was calculated after considering the necessary amount needed for development, the exploitable amount that the environment can afford and the principle of a properly tightened budget. The current figure is about 600 billion cubic metres.
Many cities rely heavily on water-consuming industries to boost the local economy. The central government has come up with several policies to deal with this situation, China Daily reported.
“The core is a plan called water resources assessment, which is completed in some cities before the environmental impact assessment. Newly built water-consuming projects must use recycled water or seawater during production to receive approval from the National Development and Reform Commission,” China Daily said quoting Chen.
Reduce water consumption
He said the enterprises should also improve their production line to reduce the water consumption of each product. Those who do well will receive subsidies from government at various levels.
“If the enterprises were cows, there are both policies to lead and to force them to run,” said Chen. “But in the long run, they are sure to benefit from the policies.”
Chen emphasized that once the water quota is allocated to all provinces, it cannot be traded in the market, because the legal system to explain the notion of water rights is still inadequate in China.
“Administrative measures and market mechanisms are now working in parallel in China,” he said. “The former is currently in the lead because it hasn’t played enough of a role in the past. But the trend in the future is the latter.”
A policy featuring the principle of water rights is undergoing a test run in Zhangye, China’s Gansu Province. Farmers there are given a water quota based on the scale of the land they are cultivating and the types of plants they grow. If they use less water than they are given, they can trade the quota left for money.
“Directly linking the concept of saving water and the farmers’ revenue together is probably the best way to promote this concept in this group of people,” Chen said.
He said work was proceeding speedily on the construction of a nationwide monitoring system. Presently, the ministry directly monitors about 30 percent of all the important rivers and reservoirs and relies on provincial governments for information about the rest of the bodies of water.
Within three years, a nationwide system will cover all major water-consuming enterprises, interprovincial river cross sections and important lakes and reservoirs, with more than 10,000 monitoring points transferring real-time data of water pumped from the water sources. By 2030, China hopes to open an entirely new chapter in the way it consumes its water resources, said Chen.
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