In China, Water is a Limiting Factor

December 30, 2021

A limiting factor is a variable of a system that causes a noticeable change in output or another measure of a type of system. – Wiki

China has a water problem, the severity of which will affect plans for dealing with energy, and climate.

Hal Brands in Bloomberg:

China’s water situation is particularly grim. As Gopal Reddy notes, China possesses 20% of the world’s population but only 7% of its fresh water. Entire regions, especially in the north, suffer from water scarcity worse than that found in a parched Middle East.

Thousands of rivers have disappeared, while industrialization and pollution have spoiled much of the water that remains. By some estimates, 80% to 90% of China’s groundwater and half of its river water is too dirty to drink; more than half of its groundwater and one-quarter of its river water cannot even be used for industry or farming.

This is an expensive problem. China is forced to divert water from comparatively wet regions to the drought-plagued north; experts assessthat the country loses well over $100 billion annually as a result of water scarcity. Shortages and unsustainable agriculture are causing the desertification of large chunks of land. Water-related energy shortfalls have become common across the country.

The government has promoted rationing and improvements in water efficiency, but nothing sufficient to arrest the problem. This month, Chinese authorities announced that Guangzhou and Shenzhen — two major cities in the relatively water-rich Pearl River Delta — will face severe drought well into next year.

The economic and political implications are troubling. By making growth cost more, China’s resource problems have joined an array of other challenges — demographic decline, an increasingly stifling political climate, the stalling or reversal of many key economic reforms — to cause a slowdown that was having pronounced effects even before Covid struck. China’s social compact will be tested as dwindling resources intensify distributional fights.

In 2005, Premier Wen Jiabao stated that water scarcity threatened the “very survival of the Chinese nation.” A minister of water resources declared that China must “fight for every drop of water or die.” Hyperbole aside, resource scarcity and political instability often go hand in hand.

Heightened foreign tensions may follow. China watchers worry that if the Chinese Communist Party feels insecure domestically, it may lash out against its international rivals. Even short of that, water problems are causing geopolitical strife.

Much of China’s fresh water is concentrated in areas, such as Tibet, that the communist government seized by force after taking power in 1949. For years, China has tried to solve its resource challenges by coercing and impoverishing its neighbors.

By building a series of giant dams on the Mekong River, Beijing has triggered recurring droughts and devastating floods in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Laos that depend on that waterway. The diversion of rivers in Xinjiang has had devastating downstream effects in Central Asia.

A growing source of tension in the Himalayas is China’s plan to dam key waters before they reach India, leaving that country (and Bangladesh) the losers. As the Indian strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney puts it, “China’s territorial aggrandizement in the South China Sea and the Himalayas … has been accompanied by stealthier efforts to appropriate water resources in transnational river basins.”

Bloomberg:

Nuclear power once seemed like the world’s best hope for a carbon-neutral future. After decades of cost-overruns, public protests and disasters elsewhere, China has emerged as the world’s last great believer, with plans to generate an eye-popping amount of nuclear energy, quickly and at relatively low cost. 

China has over the course of the year revealed the extensive scope of its plans for nuclear, an ambition with new resonance given the global energy crisis and the calls for action coming out of the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow. The world’s biggest emitter, China’s planning at least 150 new reactors in the next 15 years, more than the rest of the world has built in the past 35. The effort could cost as much as $440 billion; as early as the middle of this decade, the country will surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest generator of nuclear power.

The government’s never been shy about its interest in nuclear, along with renewable sources of energy, as part of President Xi Jinping’s goal to make China’s economy carbon-neutral by mid-century. But earlier this year, the government singled out atomic power as the only energy form with specific interim targets in its official five-year plan. Shortly after, the chairman of the state-backed China General Nuclear Power Corp. articulated the longer-term goal: 200 gigawatts by 2035, enough to power more than a dozen cities the size of Beijing.

It would be the kind of wholesale energy transformation that Western democracies — with budget constraints, political will and public opinion to consider — can only dream of. It could also support China’s goal to export its technology to the developing world and beyond, buoyed by an energy crunch that’s highlighted the fragility of other kinds of power sources. Slower winds and low rainfall have led to lower-than-expected supply from Europe’s dams and wind farms, worsening the crisis, and expensive coal and natural gas have led to power curbs at factories in China and India. Yet nuclear power plants have remained stalwart.

“Nuclear is the one energy source that came out of this looking like a champion,” said David Fishman, an energy consultant with The Lantau Group. “It generated the whole time, it was clean, the price didn’t change. If the case for nuclear power wasn’t already strong, it’s a lot stronger now.”

I spoke to glacier expert Lonnie Thompson for this video several years ago, which ends with a warning for the future of water, particularly in Asia.

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6 Responses to “In China, Water is a Limiting Factor”

  1. jimbills Says:

    On your tweet, I’m skeptical the Chinese authorities would pro-actively halt energy construction because of projected water shortages. They’d still need the energy, and the strong tendency would be to relegate regional water problems as less important than energy production or be overly optimistic about future technological solutions and supply. I’d guess they’d build the coal/nuclear, anyway (which would only worsen the water problem, of course).

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      The water issue changes the cost/benefit calculation for solar and battery projects relative to thermal power plants.

      And even they have to deal with the trend toward warmer “cooling” water that nuclear power plants need.

      Here’s hoping their molten-salt thorium nuclear technology (“dry nukes”) works.

  2. Keith McClary Says:

    Most of that applies to places closer to home. I would like to see a quantitative comparison.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      The video mentioned > 1.35b people with access to ~7% of the world’s fresh water, and even that is polluted and in the wrong place.

      The US southwest might be the closest analog, with the drought-stressed Colorado River supplying over 40m people.


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