Wednesday, May 2, 2012

China’s Groundbreaking $608 billion Drought-Proof Plan

Following China’s record-breaking water-related natural disasters in 2010, its government is developing a $608 billon, 10-year water conservation and watershed management plan. It is described as the most comprehensive attempt in more than 60 years, to deal with a worsening crisis. Coinciding with China’s focus, the Asian Development Bank this month published a report, Drying Up: What to do About Droughts in the People’s Republic of China. The report offers new ways of dealing with droughts and other natural disasters, which could give China lasting solutions.

The ADB report highlights the scale of the problems facing China from water shortages in many places and recurring droughts. Between 2001 and 2006, more than 400 cities experienced annual water shortages; of these, 11 cities had severe water shortages, according to the report.

The report also points to the country’s growing water deficit, as a result of human demand. China’s available water is far less than its total renewable water resource. Pollution, diverse landscapes and uncoordinated water management, mean that only about 30 per cent of the country’s total renewable water resource is useable.

Groundwater use has nearly doubled since the 1970s.

A big problem is the uneven distribution of water. South China holds 69 per cent of available water supplies, while the north has some of the country’s largest cities and the majority of the agricultural land.

In the south, water availability is 1,100 cubic metres per capita, just above the internationally recognised water scarcity mark of 1,000 cubic metres per capita. In the north, the per capita water supply is at a crisis level of 424 cubic metres.

The new water management plan seeks to make the country drought-ready and proactive, whereas in the past the response has been reactionary, following natural disasters. In the jargon used by water management analysts, it means moving from “drought disaster management” to “risk management”. Risk management seeks to prevent or minimise the effects of natural disasters.

China’s South-North Water Diversion project, which will divert 23 billion cubic metres of water from the Yangtze River in the south to the northern plains, is one massive project already underway. It will cost $62 billion – twice the cost of the Three Gorges Dam.

While reservoirs, diversions and dams have their place, China’s government needs to consider greater water efficiencies, using water saving fixtures, efficient irrigation and leakage protection.

Clearly, the government has the capacity to do this. The report says that, while the country’s gross domestic product increased by about 300 per cent between 2000 and 2008, its water consumption only rose seven per cent during the same period. Its economic growth has been achieved with greater water efficiency.

While China’s water and food challenges are significant, the solutions seem to be long-term and strategic, something other countries, caught in short term solution cycles, such as Australia, could learn from. Having a national perspective in problem solving, instead of a provincial or state view, certainly helps countries in overcoming the problems they face.

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