Beneath Booming Cities, China’s Future Is Drying Up
SHIJIAZHUANG, China — Hundreds of feet below ground, the primary water source for this provincial capital of more than two million people is steadily running dry. The underground water table is sinking about four feet a year. Municipal wells have already drained two-thirds of the local groundwater.
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Above ground, this city in the North China Plain is having a party. Economic growth topped 11 percent last year. Population is rising. A new upscale housing development is advertising waterfront property on lakes filled with pumped groundwater. Another half-built complex, the Arc de Royal, is rising above one of the lowest points in the city’s water table.
“People who are buying apartments aren’t thinking about whether there will be water in the future,” said Zhang Zhongmin, who has tried for 20 years to raise public awareness about the city’s dire water situation.
For three decades, water has been indispensable in sustaining the rollicking economic expansion that has made China a world power. Now, China’s galloping, often wasteful style of economic growth is pushing the country toward a water crisis. Water pollution is rampant nationwide, while water scarcity has worsened severely in north China — even as demand keeps rising everywhere.
China is scouring the world for oil, natural gas and minerals to keep its economic machine humming. But trade deals cannot solve water problems. Water usage in China has quintupled since 1949, and leaders will increasingly face tough political choices as cities, industry and farming compete for a finite and unbalanced water supply.
One example is grain. The Communist Party, leery of depending on imports to feed the country, has long insisted on grain self-sufficiency. But growing so much grain consumes huge amounts of underground water in the North China Plain, which produces half the country’s wheat. Some scientists say farming in the rapidly urbanizing region should be restricted to protect endangered aquifers. Yet doing so could threaten the livelihoods of millions of farmers and cause a spike in international grain prices.
For the Communist Party, the immediate challenge is the prosaic task of forcing the world’s most dynamic economy to conserve and protect clean water. Water pollution is so widespread that regulators say a major incident occurs every other day. Municipal and industrial dumping has left sections of many rivers “unfit for human contact.”
Cities like Beijing and Tianjin have shown progress on water conservation, but China’s economy continues to emphasize growth. Industry in China uses 3 to 10 times more water, depending on the product, than industries in developed nations.
“We have to now focus on conservation,” said Ma Jun, a prominent environmentalist. “We don’t have much extra water resources. We have the same resources and much bigger pressures from growth.”
In the past, the Communist Party has reflexively turned to engineering projects to address water problems, and now it is reaching back to one of Mao’s unrealized plans: the $62 billion South-to-North Water Transfer Project to funnel more than 12 trillion gallons northward every year along three routes from the Yangtze River basin, where water is more abundant. The project, if fully built, would be completed in 2050. The eastern and central lines are already under construction; the western line, the most disputed because of environmental concerns, remains in the planning stages.
The North China Plain undoubtedly needs any water it can get. An economic powerhouse with more than 200 million people, it has limited rainfall and depends on groundwater for 60 percent of its supply. Other countries, like Yemen, India, Mexico and the United States, have aquifers that are being drained to dangerously low levels. But scientists say those below the North China Plain may be drained within 30 years.
“There’s no uncertainty,” said Richard Evans, a hydrologist who has worked in China for two decades and has served as a consultant to the World Bank and China’s Ministry of Water Resources. “The rate of decline is very clear, very well documented. They will run out of groundwater if the current rate continues.”