China’s Water Crisis has Global Implications

September 12, 2022

A personal account from a westerner in China of this summer’s heat and drought event brought home to many the magnitude of climate’s threat to China’s economy, and possibly a glimpse into our climate future.

Mathew Bossons in New York Times:

But the heat wave that baked China for weeks was startling in its scale, duration and intensity. Through July and August, it shattered temperature recordsdried up riverswithered cropssparked wildfires and caused deaths from heatstroke. It may have been the most severe heat wave ever recorded.

And it laid bare frightening realities about how humanity is expected to adapt.

With temperatures as high as 113 degrees Fahrenheit, electricity usage soared as hundreds of millions of Chinese switched on air-conditioners. But where was that power supposed to come from? Severe drought had dried up the rivers on which the country depends for much of its clean hydroelectricity, crippling output.

This forced China, which pumps more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other nation, to double down on carbon-belching coal to make up the power shortfall. The heat wave had created a vicious cycle that, if replicated across the globe during future extreme weather events, will deeply complicate efforts to combat some of the worst effects of climate change.

In Sichuan, the majestic, raging mountain rivers that we had anticipated were no more: The hot, dry weather had reduced them to a trickle, and the deep swimming holes that we had picked out on the internet barely had enough water to reach my knees. Our hopes of gathering around a campfire each night were dashed by a ban imposed to limit wildfire risks in the bone-dry landscape.

Driving back out of the relative cool of the mountains, we were hit by the full force of the heat wave. Vast stretches of the country’s central, southern and southwestern lowlands sweltered.

We drove through normally verdant farmland toward Sichuan’s provincial capital, Chengdu, passing miles of withered cornfields and bumper-to-bumper traffic that flowed in the opposite direction toward the mountains. With hydropower output crippled, the authorities had imposed power-saving blackouts that closed businesses and rendered air-conditioners useless. People were fleeing to higher, cooler ground.

Subway stations were blacked out. At night, buildings were darkened and streetlights were dimmed. We fled the deserted streets one day for refuge in a mall, hoping to cool down, but restrictions on electricity had left it as hot and humid as the outdoors.

A city of more than 20 million people had become practically unlivable.

Chengdu wasn’t the only place. At least 262 weather stationsnationwide tied or set heat records, and rivers that are important arteries for shipping and transportation became unnavigable. Water levels in the Yangtze, the world’s third-longest river, hit record lows, dropping as much as 20 feet below recent averages.

Chickens died or struggled to lay eggs, pigs were hosed down by fire trucks to keep them cool and Sichuan’s famed pandas lay on blocks of ice. People hoisted food to their apartments using buckets and ropes because the power blackouts had left elevators idled. Some simply fled to underground tunnels to stay cool.

Gabriel Collins and Gopal Reddy in Foreign Affairs (paywall):

Moreover, a significant portion of China’s water supply is not fit for human consumption. A 2018 analysis of surface water by China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment found that although the quality had improved from previous years, 19 percent was still classified as unfit for human consumption and roughly seven percent was unfit for any use at all. The quality of groundwater—which is critical for ensuring water supplies during drought—was worse, with approximately 30 percent being deemed unfit for human consumption and 16 percent deemed unfit for any use.

China may be able to use impaired water resources in the future, but only with major additional investment in treatment infrastructure and a significant increase in electricity use to power water treatment processes. Meanwhile, farm and industrial chemicals continue to contaminate the country’s groundwater, setting the stage for potentially decades of additional water supply impairments. Data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization indicate that China uses nearly two and a half times as much fertilizer and four times as much pesticide as the United States does despite having 25 percent less arable land.

In parts of North China, groundwater levels have declined by a meter per year, causing naturally occurring underground water storage aquifers to collapse, which has triggered land subsidence and compromised the aquifers’ potential for future recharge. Recognizing the urgency of the problem, China’s government in 2003 launched the $60 billion South-to-North Water Transfer Project, which draws water from tributaries of the Yangtze River to replenish the dry north. To boost rainfall (and sometimes engineer better weather, for example, for Olympics ceremonies and party anniversary events), China has also deployed aircraft and rockets to lace clouds with silver iodide or liquid nitrogen, a process known as cloud seeding. It has also relocated heavy industry away from the most water-stressed regions and is investing massively in water management infrastructure, with Vice Minister of Water Resources Wei Shanzhong estimating in April 2022 that annual investment in water-related projects could hit $100 billion annually. 

Still, these efforts may be insufficient to forestall a crisis. Despite highly innovative programs to improve water availability, some scholars estimate that water supply could fall short of demand by 25 percent by 2030—a situation that would by definition force major adjustments in society. Experiences to date on the North China Plain enhance concern and illustrate the scale of additional needed hydraulic intervention. Despite nearly a decade of importing Yangtze valley water supplies to high-stress areas such as Beijing, large-scale depletion of stored groundwater continues in other nearby areas, such as Hebei and Tianjin.

China’s leadership is keenly aware that famines precipitated by drought helped topple at least five of China’s 17 dynasties. Thus, for centuries, the country’s leaders have emphasized maximizing grain production to ensure food security, a policy that the CCP’s development agenda has continued. The policy has become especially important since the early years of the twenty-first century as strategic competition between China and the United States intensifies. For the past 20 years, Chinese government policy has offered incentives to farmers to maximize production of corn, rice, and wheat to achieve “self-sufficiency” levels (production levels determined as a percentage of consumption) that generally exceed 90 percent. Groundwater extraction played an outsize role in this achievement and transformed the dry North China Plain into the country’s breadbasket. Farms on the North China Plain produce approximately 60 percent of China’s wheat, 45 percent of its corn, 35 percent of its cotton, and 64 percent of its peanuts. The region’s production of more than 80 million tons of wheat is on par with Russia’s annual output, and its nearly 125 million tons of corn is almost three times Ukraine’s prewar production. 

But to sustain these harvests, farms and cities are pumping water far faster than nature can replenish it. Satellite data suggest that each year between 2003 and 2010, North China lost an amount of groundwater equal to more than twice what Beijing consumes annually. As groundwater levels fall, many farmers are struggling to find new sources. Some are digging larger, deeper wells, often at great cost; but continual overdraws may render water physically inaccessible regardless of pumpers’ willingness to spend on deeper wells and new pumping technology.

If the North China Plain were to suffer a 33 percent crop loss because of water insufficiency, China would potentially need to compensate by importing approximately 20 percent of the world’s internationally traded corn and 13 percent of its traded wheat. Such a scenario is not out of the realm of possibility. Consider that a drought in early 2022 slashed Argentina’s expected corn crop by 33 percent. Further, if a drought were to curtail rice yields in southern China or Heilongjiang (in China’s fertile Northeast), that could create even larger market shocks given China’s disproportionate share of rice consumption. All three major staple grains are critical for hundreds of millions of lower-income consumers worldwide, with corn as a staple in Latin America, wheat vital in the Middle East and North Africa, and rice essential across Asia.


9 Responses to “China’s Water Crisis has Global Implications”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    This forced China, which pumps more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other nation….

    How much of their local carbon footprint is for exported products that fill our stores?

    In any case, they better start planning to reduce evaporation behind all of those dams (something Americans won’t do if it interferes with recreation), because they can’t afford to lose much in the way of hydropower.

    • redskylite Says:

      At least they have a vision and a plan.

      “China’s usage of renewable energy sources is expected to surpass 50 percent as a percentage of overall energy use increments by 2025, and wind and solar energy will double over 2020 levels, further accelerating the process of China achieving its stated carbon emissions goal, the Shanghai Securities News reported.”

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        I believe Global Times is considered a propaganda arm of the Chinese Republic. We may need to take a grain of salt with their reports.

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          Aye, but independent of that I think they have a lot of internal motivation to reduce coal-burning. They’re already feeling pain from lung cancer rates from many many decades of insanely bad PM 2.5 pollution (further aggravated by high rates of smoking).

          They’re working on new nuclear but their waterless design—which they need more than ever—is still at the prototype stage.

        • redskylite Says:

          Sorry Ginger, indeed Global Times is a questionable source (as per mediabiasfactcheckdotcom) got the story from this morning’s Carbon Brief daily report, and assumed they had fact checked already, but stand corrected and will not use “Global Times” as a source again. The story does seem to check out with other sources though, so probably is not just propaganda in this case.

          “The project in the Tengger Desert in Zhongwei City of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region will generate 5.78 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per year”

  2. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    China pumps more GH gases than any other nation because it is the biggest. Per capita it is less than half of Oz and I imagine similar amounts to the rest of the developed world. A favorite excuse is ‘there is no point in cutting back until China does’. AKA, lets keep our polluting lifestyle and let the poor people suffer instead.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      China, by its own rigid structure, has greater potential to reduce its GHG emissions quickly, as compared to India.

      • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

        India being the other low per capita nation that must reduce it’s output before us rich dudes need to reduce our high per capita output. This is a chronic excuse used in low population Australia.

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          As with Texas, a lot of the politicians in Australia are bought with fossil fuel money. In Australia’s case, they’re already exceeding Chile in lithium production and are a top exporter of iron ore (exceeds earnings from coal), gold, copper, bauxite and nickel.

          Australia’s solar and wind power might make it more feasible for them to do more cost-effective processing of their mined goods, making money from higher up the value chain rather than bulk ores or crudely refined minerals.

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