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China: Shrinking Wetlands Underline China's Water Problem

The Three Gorges Dam (file photo) (epa) Northern China, already short of water, is becoming drier still. But, despite the significant environmental, social, and political risks, analysts strike an optimistic note.

PRAGUE, 17 February 2006 -- China is on course for an acute water shortage that threatens to disrupt the country's social life and constrain its economic growth. In the populous and industrialized north, millions of people already live on one-third of the water internationally regarded as adequate. And now the fabled wetlands along the Haihe River are drying up, a serious blow to a haven of biodiversity.

The Haihe River draws its mighty stream from five tributaries that spread out like the fingers of a hand across northern China. As the Haihe rolls along, it feeds its life-giving waters to myriad swamps and water meadows.

"You cannot apply a wasteful Western lifestyle with limited water resources."

But all that is changing now. The 3,800 square kilometers of wetlands that existed a few decades ago have progressively shrunk to just over 500 square kilometers today. Chinese officials blame the drying-up on the demands made by the region's explosive economic growth and its rising population.

The story is the same over all of northern China. The region is an economic powerhouse, producing one-third of China's gross domestic product (GDP), and is home to just over one-third of the country's population.

But the north has less than 8 percent of the country's water resources. The result: Water supplies amount to only 500 cubic meters per person. That is far below the 1,700 cubic meters seen as the international benchmark for a water shortage. Some 300 cities are short of water, and things are expected to worsen over the next 25 years.

Thinking Big

What can be done to prevent the situation becoming a national crisis?

In keeping with the central government's inclination for mega-projects, work is under way on a huge project to divert water from the Yangtze River in the wetter south, to the Yellow, Huaihe, and Haihe Rivers in the parched north. The 600 kilometer-long Three Gorges reservoir will also eventually contribute water.

However, China specialist Christian LeMiere of the London-based analytical publishing group Jane's, says that this offers benefits only in the long term.

"There are a few infrastructure projects which they have in focus at the moment, one of which dates back to the era of Mao [Zedong], namely the diversion of water from the south to the north, and the east," says LeMiere, "but this will take years to build, to create. So, in the immediate term, [water] remains a problem for Chinese industry -- which is obviously consuming far more water resources [than before] -- as well as for ordinary people."

"There are very few things they can do in the next one to two years," he concludes.

Thinking Smaller

One obvious step that could be taken is to conserve existing supplies -- and there is wide scope for that. For instance, it takes less than six tons of water to produce a ton of steel in Germany or the United States, but between four and nine times that amount of water in China. Similarly, only a quarter of the water used for agricultural irrigation is effective, with the rest wasted.

Attitudes are changing, says analyst LeMiere. "There's been a growing awareness within Beijing in particular of the need for water conservation," which also holds true, he says, of other natural resources that will become scarce as the economy grows rapidly.

Beijing also has ambitious plans to "create" fresh water by seeding clouds to produce rain, and by increasing the desalination of sea water. But, as desert states in the Middle East have found, taking the salt out of seawater offers no panacea, says Bjorn Guterman of the Stockholm International Water Institute.

"It is very costly to desalinate water," he explains. "And then, if you are going to have a sustainable management of desalination, you have to use renewable energy -- and that is probably not an option".

In the increasing competition for water, it is usually farmers who lose out, as urban residential areas and industry demand ever more. Groundwater is being used at a faster rate than it can replenish itself, leading to a decline in the quality of water and even to subsidence.

This poses the possibility of rising social tensions in rural areas. Many farmers are already angry at their exclusion from the prosperity being created in the cities, at the loss of their land through the spread of industry, and at the severe pollution of many water supplies.

Despite China's looming water problems, analyst Guterman is optimistic. "Even in water-scarce societies -- there are countries which are even more water-scarce than China -- they manage it, but," he continues" "you cannot apply a wasteful Western lifestyle with limited water resources. [Recognizing] that is one of the keys to success."

One thing is sure: there will be no easy solution to providing China with adequate water.