Water Conservation vs. Dams and Aqueducts in China

In the face of water scarcity and pollution, China is starting to turn to conservation measures, even as the country continues the massive water engineering and infrastructure projects it is renowned for.

An article published last week in Yale Environment 360, a magazine of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, looks at China’s strategy.

Last December, Beijing officials announced an eight-percent increase in residential water prices. Environment 360 reporter Chistina Larson reports that such rate hikes are becoming more common.

Julian Wong, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, told Larson: “Natural resource inputs have long been underpriced in China. Conservation measures are going to be a priority in the coming years.”

A billboard in rural Gansu province, depicting the water-rich settlement the government promises to build nearby. Photograph by Christina Larsen.


Home to 20 percent of the world’s population, but just 7 percent of the planet’s freshwater, China is already experiencing frightening shortages and droughts in some regions. Scarcity will be exacerbated by increased urbanization and the effects of climate change, Larson writes.

Professor Wang Rusong, an expert in urban ecosystems at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, estimates that Beijing’s water use has grown 150 percent in just the last decade.

Wang is also an environmental advisor to Beijing’s mayor, and told Larson that he thinks “the limiting factor in Beijing’s development is water.”

This poses significant problems when you consider that over the next 20 years, 350 million Chinese are expected to make the transition from country to city.

China as a whole could face a water shortage of 53 trillion gallons (201 billion cubic meters) by 2030, according to a report released late last year by the Water Resources Group–a consortium of businesses and consulting and development organizations, including McKinsey and Company, the World Bank, and Coca-Cola.

Conservation measures are starting to sprout, but the primary solution to Beijing water shortages remains large-scale diversions of southern Yangtze River water into the northern Yellow River.

Yang Yong, an independent Chinese geologist who has studied some of the engineering pitfalls of the current proposals, told Larson that there may be better ways to accommodate increased development. “You can get more water through better conservation measures than actually building the South-to-North Water project,” he said.

Even with an influx to cities, people need to eat. And the agricultural sector in China remains water intensive, even wasteful, accounting for two-thirds of China’s overall water use, according to Larson.

Up to 45 percent of water used for crops disappears before it reaches farms, through evaporation, seepage, and unofficial diversions, according to research by Christine Boyle, a recent Fulbright fellow at the Chinese Academy of Science’s Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy. Boyle points out that when it comes to water management in China, “there are a lot of moving parts, but not a lot of oversight.”

More on China’s water:

Pictures: Huge Jets Shoot From Dam During China Floods

Photos: Algae Blankets China Beaches; Dead Zone Brewing?

Can China’s Eco-Cities Bridge Fantasy With Reality?

National Geographic magazine’s China issue


Tasha Eichenseher is the Environment Producer and Editor for National Geographic Digital Media. She has covered water issues for a wide range of media outlets, including E,The Environmental MagazineEnvironmental Science & Technology online newsGreenwireGreen Guide, and National Geographic News.

[This post has been reformatted for Water Currents.]

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