China: High and Dry

May 21, 2013 • Climate Change & Mitigation, News

China: High and Dry
Water Shortages Put Brakes on Economic Growth


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 Gansu sandwiched between the vast deserts 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, “ecological migrants”.


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.

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