China running out of water -- and time : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Published Friday, July 7, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News

China running out of water -- and time Food shortages, pollution on rise BY MICHAEL DORGAN Mercury News Beijing Bureau

TIANJIN, China -- When people living along the Duliujian look out across the once-broad river these days, it is often with tears in their eyes.

The reason is not sorrow, though their sorrow is great. The tears come from the toxic fumes of chemical-plant wastes that are still dumped into the riverbed even though there is no longer any water to flush them away.

``The smell in the morning is so terrible that people burst into tears,'' said Li Jianping, who runs a small restaurant on the river's bank. ``Sometimes they can't open their eyes.''

Losing the crucial water source on the southern edge of Tianjin, an industrial city of 9 million people in northeastern China, has had a devastating impact on the local agriculture and tourist industries. But the drying up of the polluted Duliujian over the past two years is just part of a much larger problem.

China is running out of water, and much of the remaining supply is so polluted by human and industrial waste it is unfit for consumption or even irrigation.

More than half of China's cities have serious water shortages. More than 80 percent of its rivers are so foul that fish cannot survive in them. About 700 million people -- more than half the population -- drink water contaminated with levels of animal and human waste that do not meet minimum drinking water standards, according to the Washington-based World Resources Institute.

``Water is China's No. 1 environmental problem,'' said Sheri Liao, who heads one of China's few independent environmental groups, Global Village.

It may not be only China's problem for long. Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington-based non-profit environmental research group, said in an interview that China's worsening water shortage has global implications: The rapid and irreversible fall of the country's water tables could soon mean rising food prices for the entire world.

That's because China's water shortage will prevent it from growing enough food to feed its increasing population and meet higher expectations as living standards rise. Already China's leaders have abandoned their long-standing policy of remaining self-sufficient in grain, conceding that demand increasingly will exceed domestic supply.

Brown argues that China's fast-growing economy will allow it to outbid other water-scarce countries for food, creating competition that will raise prices and create food shortages in poorer countries.

Chinese academics and government officials have long criticized Brown, arguing that he wrongly portrays China as a threat to the rest of the world. They contend that China can increase food production to meet its growing needs, but that because its arable land is limited, buying part of its grain on the world market is a better strategy.

Pressure on food market

Brown estimates that by 2030 China will import more than 200 million tons of grain per year, an amount equivalent to the current total of world grain exports. But he said the disruptive effects on global food markets will be felt much sooner.

What gives Brown confidence in his grim predictions is a growing body of evidence that China's water shortage is quickly reaching a crucial juncture. As the population has more than doubled to 1.25 billion over the past 50 years, water consumption has soared and thousands of lakes, rivers and reservoirs have been drained.

Even the famed Yellow River, whose fertile basin was the cradle of Chinese civilization, has become an inland stream. After flowing into the East China Sea without interruption for thousands of years, it has run dry for part of each year since 1985, its water siphoned off for agriculture, industry and urban residents.

Depleted surface water has led to more dependence on underground supplies. But those too are running dry.

Fifty years ago, according to environmentalist Liao, well diggers on the Beijing plain typically had to drill only 15 feet to reach water. Now they have to go down about 150 feet. Some experts have begun to warn that China eventually may have to relocate its capital unless Beijing's chronic water shortage can somehow be solved.

Roughly the same rate of water depletion suffered by Beijing has occurred across northern China. A survey two years ago by China Agricultural University in Beijing indicated that the water table under much of the North China Plain, which produces about 40 percent of China's grain, had fallen an average of about 5 feet per year over the previous five years.

Water experts disagree on how much water remains in China's aquifers. Chen Jingsheng, a professor of urban and environmental sciences at Peking University, said in an interview that no good estimates are available.

But there is no disagreement over the fact that the aquifers eventually will run dry if China continues to pump more water out of them than nature restores. Once that happens, agricultural output will plummet, because 70 percent of China's crops rely on irrigation.

Brown predicts that irrigated agriculture on the Beijing-Tianjin plain, a major grain-growing area with about 100 million residents, will end within 10 years, cutting yields in half.

The draining of aquifers already is so serious that many surface areas of China, including the eastern suburbs of the nation's capital, are sinking. This week, the director of the Shanghai Water Supply Administration told the China Daily newspaper that Shanghai, China's economic capital and largest port, also has been sinking, largely because of using too much underground water.

After decades of denial, the government has begun to acknowledge the problems. It has begun investing in new water treatment facilities and has launched numerous conservation and cleanup campaigns.

Untreated sewage

But those efforts have not kept pace with the creation of wastes. The Washington-based World Resources Institute recently estimated that more than 30 billion tons of urban sewage is discharged each year into China's rivers, lakes or seas, and less than 2.7 percent receives any treatment. In the countryside, where the majority of Chinese live, the amount of domestic and industrial waste treated is even lower.

Those massive discharges have turned most of China's surface water sources into toxic soups spiked with large quantities of parasites, bacteria, viruses, acids, alkali, nitrogen, phosphate, phenols, cyanide, lead, cadmium and mercury.

Most underground water also has been poisoned, because the surface contaminants seep into aquifers.

Environmental and health monitoring in China is spotty, but illnesses ranging from dysentery to stomach cancer have been linked to polluted water. Particularly vulnerable are children, whose physical and mental development can be impaired by exposure to environmental poisons. One study showed that children growing up near toxic Weishan Lake in coastal Shandong province averaged six points lower on IQ tests than children in a control group.

The worst is yet to come, because water use and water pollution are both going up.

This year, the waste water produced in China ``could double from 1990 levels to almost 78 billion tons,'' according to a recent report by the World Resources Institute.

-- Martin Thompson (, July 07, 2000

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