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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

China Water Scarcity

Air Date: Week of

Around the world, projections are being made about food production in China in the coming century. Critical to the question of growing food is the availability of the water that irrigates it. Lucie MacNeill reports from China on the state of water in the world's most populous nation, and what may be done to avoid further crisis.


CURWOOD: China has the oldest major civilization on earth, and even though it had invented rocketry, it was left behind when the Industrial Revolution took off in the West. But today, just like the proverbial steady tortoise that passes the overconfident hare, China is once again poised to lead humanity. Already China has the world's largest population, and soon will have the world's largest economy as well, surpassing the United States. But this economic boom has come with a dark side: environmental decline. This week and next, we'll look at the severe air and water pollution that's now choking China, and also consider how China's need for food is putting the squeeze on world grain markets. When it comes to water, China has mirrored Western development of years past. Industry has dumped dirty effluent. Agricultural chemicals have leached into groundwater. And cities have grown without adequate sewage treatment. The result is a critical shortage of clean water in a country that's never had much water to begin with. Lucie McNeill has our report.

(Running water)

MCNEILL: When Marco Polo visited the city of Suzhou 500 years ago, he was so charmed by its graceful canals that he called it the Venice of the East. Suzhou is only an hour away from Shanghai. It attracts millions of tourists every year. But these days the stench is so nauseating, visitors have to hold their nose when they go anywhere near the canals. Zhou Xiaodong is with the Municipal Government's Construction Bureau. He's in charge of water quality.

XIAODONG: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: Six months a year the water here is black and stinky. One time we drained the canals and you wouldn't believe what we found. Coal, household refuse, and even old sofas. In the summer you can see rotten vegetables, watermelon peels, and plastic bags floating on the surface. It's a mess.

MCNEILL: It wasn't always this way. Zhou Xiaodong remembers swimming in the canals when he was a child. People even used to catch fish and shrimp in these waters. But over the past 20 years industries have flourished throughout the region, and the city's population has increased dramatically. Thanks to the UN, the World Bank, and other international aid agencies, Suzhou has started to fight back.

(Running water)

MCNEILL: This is one of the city's 4 sewage treatment plants. Ti Ming Yuen is the engineer in charge. He ignores the unmistakable smell of sewage as he proudly shows off the facility.

YUEN: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: Look at this water. Now that it's treated it's as clear as a mountain stream. You still can't drink it, but it can be used in industry and we can raise fish in it. I believe it's good to invest in our environment. If there was no waste treatment in Suzhou, nobody would come here for business or pleasure.

MCNEILL: Suzhou now treats one quarter of its domestic sewage. It's primary treatment, which means only the solids have been filtered out, not the pathogens or the chemical contaminants. Yet it's an outstanding performance for a Chinese city. By the year 2000, the government's target is to have one third of all cities in the country install treatment plants like this one.

(Running water)

MCNEILL: But by far China's biggest problem is industrial waste. In Suzhou, three quarters of the industrial effluent is treated. However, the remainder is potent enough to cause severe water quality problems. There are 13 major polluters upstream: paper mills, electroplating factories, pharmaceutical and chemical plants. They're pumping heavy metals, nitrates, phosphates, and organic matter directly into the canal. Zhou Xiaodong of the municipal government says both the industries and the government are at fault.

XIAODONG: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: Our economy is doing great, but our enterprises do not care about the environment. Maybe you've had this problem, too. Businessmen only care about profit. In theory, they have to obey government regulations, but we don't have the manpower to check up on them, so the water quality keeps deteriorating.

(Traffic; a horn blasts)

MCNEILL: Two years ago the dangers of water pollution were brought home to the 100 million people who live along the banks of the Huai River, one of eastern China's main waterways. Heavy rains drenched the area up river, washing downstream toxic effluent that had been accumulating for years in settling ponds and lagoons. As the murky black tide swept along, millions of people had to stop drinking the water. Thousands were treated in hospital for poisoning. Millions of fish, shrimp and birds were killed. Irrigated crops were contaminated and had to be destroyed. (Many voices, children laughing, motors running, bicycle bells) Overnight, the Huy River became a national emergency. It's now the government's number one cleanup priority. Wang Zhixia is with NEPA, China's National Environment Protection Agency.

ZHIXIA: The people living in this basin, this was 100 million people, and the water quality is so bad. And we closed down some of the polluters in the polluting industries.

MCNEILL: How many factories were shut down?

ZHIXIA: In last year, about 362 something.

MCNEILL: Factories.


MCNEILL: Were closed.


MacNEILL: Diplomats here point out that while the Chinese authorities are to be commended for this, the major polluters along the river are still dumping effluent at will. They employ too many people and are far too important to the local economy to be mothballed. Those enterprises have been given a deadline to install waste treatment facilities, but it's doubtful the government will shut down delinquent plants for good. That's why experts believe that in south and east China, water pollution will remain critical for years to come.

(A pot being dipped in water)

MacNEILL: Here in northwest China the problem is not so much pollution as scarcity. There's very little water. Ma Junzhen collects all the rain water and snow melt he can in this cistern, but already it's nearly empty. There's hardly enough water for his sheep. A thousand miles from Beijing, just below Mongolia, is Ningxia Province. This area's been plagued by droughts for centuries. Farmers like Mr. Ma have always stored water in underground cisterns like this one. Still, some years they run out.

MA: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: When it doesn't rain we don't harvest anything. We don't eat. Water is the most precious thing there is. We often have to buy water and get it trucked in. It costs $30 to fill this cistern. This water here is a treasure. If we don't padlock the lid, people come in the middle of the night to steal it.

(A lid closes; a pot scrapes)

MacNEILL: The acute shortage of water for most of China's vast northwest region is a major crisis for the authorities, and millions of dollars have been spent to alleviate it. Deep wells have been drilled, reservoirs built. Water from the Yellow River is pumped up to villages hundreds of miles away. And farmers are relocated from virtual deserts to newly irrigated areas. Still, it's not enough. In fact, as China taps increasing amounts of groundwater, the water table recedes ever deeper. In some places the ground is even sinking as a result. Water use in the northwest is clearly not sustainable. China's response to this crisis is grandiose in scale. Li Changfan is one of the top officials with the Ministry of Water Resources. He proudly announced the government's plan at a recent press conference in Beijing.

LI: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: Our approach is to transfer water from water rich areas to areas where there's a water deficit. Over the next 50 years we'll develop water transfer projects from the Yangtse River to the Yellow, Hai, and Haui River basins. That will solve the shortage there.

MacNEILL: This is the kind of mammoth scheme that engineers love but ecologists hate. NEPA, the National Environment Protection Agency, has so far been very cautious about massive inter-basin water transfers. Its experts worry that polluted Yangtse River water would only contaminated the northwest. But since the Water Ministry is far more powerful than NEPA, they're likely to win the day. Susan McDade is with the United Nations Development Program. She also questions the wisdom of disturbing whole river basins and setting off unforeseeable ecological chain reactions. But she points out mega projects of this scope are the Chinese way.

McDADE: China's the same country that generated the Great Wall, the Grand Canal, and many of these mega projects to reshape land and territory. So this is part of the Chinese approach to how they see their world, and it is facilitated by the fact of China being a relatively homogeneous and extremely large country. So it means in terms of the way the government system is operated, they consider these things to be possible.

MCNEILL: Leading experts on China's environment, like Susan McDade, believe the scarcity of clean water is the most serious challenge facing the country. Already it's affecting the growth and productivity of both agriculture and industry. But it took the Huai River disaster to wake up China's leaders. They finally realized if they don't act now, future water emergencies could be much more severe, triggering starvation, mass migration, or civil unrest. The central government seems determined to hold the line on pollution at 1995 levels. But many doubt local governments will listen to Beijing. To clamp down on polluters would affect local revenues. Short-sighted provincial officials often think it's better to get rich now than protect water quality for future generations. There's a saying here: when the Emperor is far away, you can ignore his orders. A lot of inertia and resistance will have to be overcome before people change the way they use water. But Susan McDade of the UNDP believes straight economics will prove the environment's best ally.

McDADE: One of the things that characterizes water use in China right now is there's a very, very low, in many cases non-existing, reuse or recycling of water. Now perversely, water scarcity may be one of the things that push industrial enterprises to start introducing wastewater recycling and reuse, because even if the water is not necessarily expensive to be biting economically, its scarcity could be biting in terms of, you know, a barrier to production.

MCNEILL: Now this is going to take time. That's why the situation is going to get worse. What's hopeful is that there's a growing recognition here that it would be suicidal to continue on this present course. The government is starting to take action, not only by cleaning up pollution, but by making better use of the little water there is. People now realize clean water is a scarce resource that can no longer be taken for granted.

(Running water)

MCNEILL: For Living on Earth, this is Lucie McNeill in Beijing.



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