High and dry
By Leslie Hook
Financial Times, 15 May 2013
Devastating water shortages are putting a brake on economic growth and
stirring political discontent ï¿½ but Beijing's high-spending responses to
the problem have triggered widespread criticism.
Wang Fuguo, a 63-year-old cotton farmer, does not know when his
ancestors began tilling the land in the dusty village of Weijie.
But he is fairly sure he will be the last of his family to do so.
"They've all fled," he says, looking out from his gate at the abandoned
houses that line the village's only street.
The reason is simple. "There's just no water here," he says. "If you
don't have water you can't survive." His household gets running water
for one hour every five days, barely enough to feed a tiny patch of
aubergines and supply his family and their dozen sheep.
In the face of China's rapid economic expansion and growing presence
on the global stage, it is often forgotten that the country is running
out of water. In per capita terms, China's water resources are just a
quarter of the world average. Eight of China's 28 provinces are as
parched as countries in the Middle East such as Jordan and Syria,
according to China Water Risk, a consultancy based in Hong Kong.
In the area where Mr Wang lives, Minqin county, a former oasis in
the vast desert of Inner Mongolia, the problem is particularly severe.
Mr Wang's neighbours are not the only ones who have moved away. More
than 10,000 people have left the area and have become shengtai yimin,
Chinese officials identify water scarcity as one of the nation's
most pressing difficulties. The problems are social, political and
economic. This year Beijing for the first time issued water quotas to
every province, setting targets for annual consumption by 2015.
The water shortage is made even more urgent by China's rapid
urbanisation, as expanding cities have greater water needs. More than
300m people are expected to move into cities between now and 2030.
This transformation comes as the Chinese are becoming far more
critical and vocal about the way they are governed. Weibo, a
Twitter-like social network, is routinely filled with users sharing
information about pollution violations. Some users even dare officials
to take a dip in the rivers they are supposed to be in charge of keeping
clean. At times the government's inability to control its waterways has
made it the object of public ridicule, such as when more than 16,000
dead pig carcases floated down Shanghai's main waterway this year.
The economic problems are formidable, with the water shortage
threatening to slam a brake on growth. According to a World Bank report
in 2007, water problems cost China economic losses of 2.3 per cent of
gross domestic product. Executives say that water shortages are already
starting to reshape their industries.
"Serious water scarcity is one of the big problems that has slowed
down social and economic development in the north," says Jiang Liping,
water specialist at the World Bank in Beijing .
China's lack of water is itself partly a result of economic growth.
As people grow wealthier and move to cities, they eat more
water-intensive foods, buy more water-intensive products and use more
water at home. Changing climate also plays a role, as rainfall patterns
and river flows shift. All this is exacerbated by a strained
agricultural sector ï¿½ which accounts for 60 per cent of China's water
use. Farmers are digging ever deeper to access water supplies and
irrigate more of their land.
The water scarcity is also worsened by the heavy pollution that
accompanies China's economic growth. "Controlling pollution is the most
difficult aspect of China's water policies," says Xia Jun, director of
the centre for water resources research at the Chinese Academy of Social
Sciences. "Even in places that have water, it is so polluted that you
might not be able to use it." Already, 39 per cent of the water in
China's major rivers is too toxic to be fit for any contact with humans.
In a sign of the gravity of the problem, Beijing is planning to pour
Rmb1.8tn ($291bn) into water-related infrastructure projects such as
irrigation and dams under the current five year plan ï¿½ a sum that is
greater than the annual gross domestic product of economies such as
Egypt and Chile.
Loss of livelihood for farmers such as Mr Wang in Minqin is just one
example of the huge pressure that water scarcity is putting on China's
whole commercial landscape. The country's growth and political stability
are increasingly threatened by the widespread degradation of its air and
China's energy sector is particularly threatened by water shortages.
Promising new technologies will be constrained in some areas. Projects
to develop shale gas, for example, require large amounts of water for
hydraulic fracking. Even as Beijing builds new nuclear power plants at a
record rate, the government has also announced a moratorium on inland
nuclear plants because of concerns over water supply and safety.
"All uses of energy are connected with water," says Lin Boqiang, an
energy economist at the University of Xiamen. "In the past, when there
was not a shortage of water resources, people would only think about how
much water they needed on the site where they wanted to build a project.
Now it's the other way around. The volume of water available determines
how much energy can be developed in a certain place."
The state's deep concern about water has resulted in some of the
toughest laws on water use and water pollution anywhere in the world,
although corruption and weak rule of law mean implementation is patchy.
"You have to build the most sophisticated water treatment plants in the
world to fulfil the law," says an executive in the chemicals industry.
"The water laws are sometimes causing investors to rethink, given the
amount of investment needed."
However, many question whether these tough laws and the billions
spent on water infrastructure will really ease the water crisis. Some
Chinese scientists have lambasted the expensive projects at the core of
Beijing's water strategy, including the giant diversion system that will
carry water thousands of kilometres from southern to northern China to
alleviate shortages there.
That project, known as the South-North Water Transfer, will cost at
least $41bn and has forced more than 300,000 people to relocate, with
engineers cutting new canals and reservoirs. Other efforts to ease the
water shortages in northern China, such as the desalination plants
springing up on the coast near Tianjin, are also expensive and consume
large amounts of energy.
Minqin county, where Mr Wang lives, is a good example of how China's
obsession with water infrastructure has backfired. Mega-projects have
been a hallmark of communist rule. When Mao Zedong was in power, a giant
dam was built across Minqin's only water source, the Shiyang river, in
1958, by students eager to show their devotion to their leader. But soon
after the reservoir was filled, Qingtu lake, the body of water
downstream that had been at the heart of the Minqin oasis, dried up.
With no more water in the lake and diminished flows in the Shiyang
river, farmers in Minqin started pumping water from the ground to feed
their crops. As a result the water table fell. Trees and shrubs that had
kept the desert at bay for centuries died during the 1980s and 1990s.
With the vegetation gone, the desert started to encroach on the
once-lush area. In some places, sand dunes engulfed entire houses.
Minqin's plight eventually started to attract national attention. In
2007, Premier Wen Jiabao visited, declaring: "We should win the fight
for Minqin, and not let it vanish from the map." The government
allocated Rmb4.7bn to make sure that did not happen. This was a colossal
amount for one of China's poorest provinces but the move mirrored
China's huge outlays on water projects across the country.
However, China's approach to water management has changed little
since Mao. Instead of improving the situation, the multibillion yuan
programme has infuriated many in Minqin over what they consider to be
useless vanity projects.
At the top of their list is Qingtu lake. It dried up several decades
ago but the government has "restored" it by building a new canal
network. When water started flowing through the canals towards the lake,
farmers gathered to watch it go by, shocked that so much of the precious
resource could be expended to build an artificial lake when their
parched fields lay nearby. The lake today resembles a small wetland
among the dunes, supported by dykes, pipes and underground sealants to
help keep the water in place.
"It is totally unsustainable," says Kuoray Mao, a researcher with
the University of Kansas who lived in Minqin for 18 months, referring to
the new lake. "All this money is really just going to feed the
bureaucracy, not to improve farmers' lives."
While Minqin has its artificial lake, other parts of China are
similarly grappling with the impact of water projects gone wrong. The
Three Gorges Dam, completed in 2006 at a cost of Rmb254bn, has been
plagued by silting, landslides, pollution and ecological degradation.
Last year, the State Council, China's cabinet, warned that the dam had
"urgent problems". Across northern and central China, the rapid
expansion of irrigation infrastructure thanks to government funding has
hastened the depletion of underground aquifers.
Few places have more cause for public anger than Minqin, however.
"The people here are very unhappy with the government," says one former
farmer who asked not to be named. "They spent all this money to build a
lake but our lives have only gotten harder."
As part of the multimillion-dollar restoration programme, farmers'
private wells were closed and water prices were raised, making it
difficult to get by. The government provides enough water to each farmer
to cultivate 2.5 mu of land per person (slightly less than half an
acre), but no more than that.
It is hard to see how areas such as Minqin can realise the vision
outlined by China's leaders, who are promising a "China dream" with
higher incomes and better standards of living.
Although thousands of farmers have moved out of Minqin, suicide and
depression are common among those who remain. Mr Wang, the cotton
farmer, says he and his wife have thought about moving but decided
against it. "No one wants us," he says.
Three Gorges Dam - A vanity project with dire consequences
By Jamil Anderlini
Financial Times, 15 May 2013
When the main structure of the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest
hydropower project, was completed in 2006 it was hailed in China as a
triumph of man over nature and a shining example of the Communist
party's ability to mobilise advanced technology to build grand projects.
But by May 2011, China's state council was referring to the dam's
"urgent problems" of environmental degradation, resettlement of about
1.3m people and serious erosion throughout the dam's reservoir area.
A project that was supposed to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and
end centuries of devastating floods has become mired in controversy and
been blamed for the extinction of species, contributing to climate
change, exacerbating droughts downstream and seismic instability.
The dam was envisioned by the early revolutionary Sun Yat-sen but it
was Chairman Mao Zedong who was its main champion and who had engineers
thrown in prison in the late 1950s when they criticised the proposed
Mao did not live to see his vision poured in concrete but the plan
was revived in the 1980s and approved in 1992 despite opposition from
nascent environmentalists and even many officials who saw it as a
ludicrously expensive and environmentally devastating vanity project.
About 1.3m people were moved from their ancestral homes, many of
them unwillingly and some of them in the face of violent threats as the
660km-long reservoir was gradually filled. Official corruption was rife
throughout the compensation and resettlement process.
But it was only when the dam was completed that the scale of the
environmental problems became clear.
"The environmental impacts of the project are profound and are
likely to get worse as time goes on," according to International Rivers,
a US-based environmental group. "The submergence of hundreds of
factories, mines and waste dumps and the presence of massive industrial
centres upstream are creating a festering bog of effluent, silt,
industrial pollutants and rubbish in the reservoir."
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