Thursday, September 6, 2012

China's Water Problem

Climate change is causing a looming water shortage for Asia, but Singapore offers an example of how solutions can be found

Over the last decade alone, 70 million new jobs emerged from an economy that this year, according to the World Bank and other authorities, generated the world’s largest markets for cars, steel, cement, glass, housing, energy, power plants, wind turbines, solar panels, highways, high-speed rail systems, airports, and other basic supplies and civic equipment to support a modern economy.
Yet, like a tectonic fault line, underlying China’s new standing in the world is an increasingly fierce competition between energy and water that threatens to upend China’s progress. Simply put, according to Chinese authorities and government reports, China’s demand for energy, particularly for coal, is outpacing its freshwater supply.
Students of Chinese history and geography, of course, understand that tight supplies of fresh water are nothing new in a nation where 80 percent of the rainfall and snowmelt occurs in the south, while just 20 percent of the moisture occurs in the mostly desert regions of the north and west. What’s new is that China’s surging economic growth is prompting the expanding industrial sector, which consumes 70 percent of the nation’s energy, to call on the government to tap new energy supplies, particularly the enormous reserves of coal in the dry north.
The problem, say government officials, is that there is not enough water to mine, process, and consume those reserves, and still develop the modern cities and manufacturing centers that China envisions for the region.
“Water shortage is the most important challenge to China right now, the biggest problem for future growth,” said Wang Yahua, deputy director of the Center for China Study at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “It’s a puzzle that the country has to solve.”
The consequences of diminishing water reserves and rising energy demand have been a special focus of Circle of Blue’s attention for more than a year. In 2010, in our Choke Point: U.S. series, Circle of Blue found that rising energy demand and diminishing freshwater reserves are two trends moving in opposing direction across America. Moreover, the speed and force of the confrontation is occurring in the places where growth is highest and water resources are under the most stress—California, the Southwest, the Rocky Mountain West, and the Southeast.
Modernization vs. Water Resources
In December, we expanded our reporting to China. Circle of Blue—in collaboration with the China Environment Forum (CEF) at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars—dispatched four teams of researchers and photographers to 10 Chinese provinces.
Their assignment: to report on how the world’s largest nation and second-largest economy is achieving its swift modernization, despite scarce and declining reserves of clean fresh water. In essence, Circle of Blue and CEF completed a national tour of the extensive water circulatory system and vast energy production musculature that makes China go.

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