How Does Water Security Affect China’s Development?

How Does Water Security Affect China’s Development?
How Does Water Security Affect China’s Development?
How Does Water Security Affect China’s Development? Top

    Access to safe drinking water is essential for communities around the world. Regions without clean and accessible drinking water face serious economic and social challenges.

    Globally, 71 percent of people have access to safely managed drinking water at home that is available when needed and free from contamination.

    Another 19 percent have basic drinking water service from an improved source that is less accessible.

    The remaining 10 percent of the global population relies on limited water service that is far from home, unimproved water from wells or springs, or untreated surface water.

    With roughly one-fifth of the global population residing in China, measures taken to manage the country’s water resources have a tremendous impact on hundreds of millions of lives.

    Providing safe drinking water to over 1.4 billion people remains a challenge for China. The country’s economic development has raised living standards and expanded access to water for much of the population, yet millions still lack water that is safe and easily accessible.

    China and India account for over a third of the worldwide population – more than the next 20 countries combined.

    This graphic shows a breakdown of drinking water services among the world’s largest population bases. Toggle the dropdown menu to switch between income groups. Hover over a country for more details.

    Safely managed
    Drinking water from an improved source located on premises, available when needed, and free from contamination.
    At least basic
    Drinking water that is either at the basic or safely managed level, but cannot be categorized as such due to limited data.
    Basic
    Drinking water from an improved source that is accessible within a 30-minute roundtrip.
    Limited
    Drinking water from an improved source that is not accessible within a 30-minute roundtrip.
    Unimproved
    Drinking water from an unprotected dug well or spring.
    Surface water
    Drinking water directly from a river, lake, or other unprotected surface source.

    Over the last few decades, access to safe drinking water has expanded dramatically across China. In 2000, more than 245 million people drank water from untreated sources. Less than two decades later that number had dropped to 89 million people. China’s ongoing modernization is largely responsible for this improvement, but economic development presents its own challenges for water security.

    Industrial pollution has wreaked havoc on the country’s water supply. Rapid urbanization has made it difficult to provide enough water to major cities. According to Chinese government data, China’s total water use increased 8.8 percent between 2000 and 2015, and wastewater emissions grew by more than 50 percent.

    The resulting pressure on water supplies has compounded scarcity issues and outpaced the development of waste-management infrastructure. Even in China’s most-developed cities, many residents continue to boil and filter tap water due to concerns about inadequate water treatment and aging underground pipe networks.

    As the Chinese economy continues to mature and millions more flock to cities, leaders in Beijing will face continued water security challenges. Failing to resolve these issues could stymie the country’s economic and social development.

    How Pollution Undercuts Water Security in China

    Decades of poor water and waste management have left much of China’s surface water and groundwater severely polluted. Beijing has made notable commitments to reducing water pollution, but significant environmental and public health risks remain.

    More than 80 percent of China’s water supply comes from surface water, such as rivers and lakes. In 2018, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) reported that 6.9 percent of surface water in China’s river basins was “Below Grade V” quality, meaning it was so polluted that it was unfit for any use. Another 18.9 percent was categorized as “Grade IV and V,” indicating it was only suitable for agricultural or industrial use, but not for human consumption.

    China’s Surface Water Grading System
    Grade Description
    I Waters from natural sources and national nature reserves
    II Suitable for use in centralized drinking water sources and for sustaining marine life
    III Suitable for use in centralized drinking water sources, sustaining some marine life, and recreational swimming
    IV Suitable for industrial use and recreation, but with no direct human contact
    V Suitable only for irrigation and landscaping
    Below Grade V Not suitable for any use
    Source: Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment

    The Hai River basin, which includes the major industrial areas of Hebei and Tianjin, is the most polluted of all the major basins in China. More than half of the basin’s surface water is unsuitable for drinking. In the nearby Liao River basin, which is the second-most polluted river basin in China, the situation grows more dire every year. Between 2013 and 2018, the share of Below Grade V water in the Liao River basin quadrupled from 5.4 percent to 22.1 percent.

    Lakes in China are also heavily polluted. Lake Tai, in eastern China, is the country’s third-largest freshwater lake and one of the most polluted. In 2007, decades of industrial pollution culminated in a major algae bloom that killed off much of the lake’s animal life and forced millions of nearby residents to drink from bottled water. Although RMB 26 billion (nearly $4 billion) has been spent on cleanup efforts, nearly all of the lake’s water remains unsafe for drinking.

    Groundwater from underground aquifers supplies most of the remainder of China’s water. According to the MEE, 15.5 percent of China’s groundwater in 2018 was unsuitable for any use. Another 70.7 percent was clean enough for agricultural and industrial purposes and could only be used for drinking water after proper treatment. 

    Water pollution carries serious economic and social costs. In the first half of 2017 alone, China spent an estimated RMB 667.4 billion ($100.2 billion) on nearly 8,000 water cleanup projects. Water pollution in heavily industrialized areas has also been linked to higher rates of cancer. A 2012 study found that the deterioration of drinking water by a single grade (on the MEE’s scale) can increase the death rate of digestive cancer by 9.7 percent.

    China’s Groundwater Grading System
    Grade(s) Description
    I and II Suitable for drinking
    III Suitable for drinking, irrigation, and industrial use
    IV Suitable for irrigation and industrial use
    V Not suitable for any purpose
    Source: Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment

    Other countries suffer from similar problems. Some of the most polluted rivers in the world are in India. In 2016, it was revealed that approximately 63 percent of sewage running into India’s rivers was untreated. Even developed countries like the US have struggled with severe water pollution in the past. In 1969, northern Ohio’s Cuyahoga River was so polluted that it caught on fire. The event ignited public anger over water pollution and galvanized support for the Clean Water Act of 1972, which still stands as a cornerstone of US environmental protection laws.

    The Chinese government has launched its own efforts to reduce water pollution. In 2015, China’s State Council issued the Water Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan, which set targets for improving water quality by 2030. The National People’s Congress passed major revisions to the Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law in 2018 – the first update to the law in a decade. A key feature of the legislation was the establishment of a system of “river chiefs” and “lake chiefs” that makes local officials responsible for addressing pollution in specific bodies of water.

    A considerable increase in the number of groundwater monitoring stations likely contributed to the significant shift in groundwater quality in 2018.

    In January 2020, the MEE announced a five-year plan to restrict farming near major rivers, which is aimed at limiting water pollution from agricultural runoff. Successful implementation of the plan could substantially reduce water pollution, but it is highly ambitious and Chinese authorities may find it difficult to enforce.

    Although significant challenges remain, government efforts have led to some notable improvements. In 2001, 44 percent of China’s surface waters were considered unusable due to pollution (Below Grade V), compared to just 6.9 percent in 2018. Groundwater pollution, however, remains largely unchanged. Improving groundwater is far more difficult than treating surface water and will likely remain a long-term challenge for China.

    How Scarcity Threatens Water Security in China

    Water scarcity is another serious threat facing China. Nearly one-fifth of the world’s population lives in China, yet only about 6 percent of global renewable freshwater resources lie within the country’s borders. The Chinese government has made considerable investments in improving access to water, but urbanization and climate change continue to strain water resources.

    Per Capita Water Resources in Selected Countries (2017)
    Country Freshwater Resources (m3 per person) Global Rank (Out of 182)
    Canada 79,238 8
    USA 9,459 61
    China 2,075 120
    India 1,427 138
    Saudi Arabia 73 178
    Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

    Water scarcity occurs when the available amount of renewable freshwater does not meet demand. The UN defines water scarcity as an area having less than 1,000 cubic meters (m3) of freshwater available per person, and “absolute water scarcity” as an area containing less than 500 m3 of water per person. In 2017, there was approximately 2,075 m3 of water per person in China. While this is not considered water-scarce, China’s water resources are far less than the global median (3,776 m3) and roughly one-fifth of the per capita levels in the US (9,459 m3).

    Water scarcity can also be measured in terms of “water stress,” which the World Resource Institute (WRI) defines as a ratio of the total amount of water withdrawals to available renewable water supplies. According to the WRI, China suffers from medium-high water stress and is the 56th most water-stressed country in the world.

    Water Stress in Selected Countries
    Country Water Stress Level Global Rank (Out of 164)
    Saudi Arabia Extremely High 8
    India Extremely High 13
    China Medium-high 56
    USA Low-medium 70
    Canada Low 108
    Source: World Resources Institute (WRI)

    As water resources are not evenly distributed across China, national-level comparisons do not tell the full story. Roughly half of the country’s population resides in its northern 15 provinces and municipalities, where only one-fifth of China’s freshwater resources are located.1 A total of nine provinces and municipalities suffer from absolute water scarcity. All these locations, except Shanghai, are in northern China.

    Other countries also struggle with water scarcity. Nine states in India, which are home to over half a billion people, suffer from extremely high levels of water stress.2 Most of South Africa does not have high water stress, but Western Cape experiences extremely high water stress. Its provincial capital, Cape Town, faced a severe water shortage crisis in 2017-2018 that brought the city close to shutting down municipal water services. 

    Climate plays a major role in water resource disparities. Regions in northern China receive significantly less annual rainfall than elsewhere in the country. In the lower reaches of the Yellow River, which flows through nine northern provinces, annual rainfall averages between just 20-25 inches. In comparison, some areas along China’s southeastern coast receive more than 80 inches of rain per year.

    Climate change will likely deepen water scarcity. Rising global temperatures will contribute to the melting of Himalayan glaciers and snowpacks, which are the source of many rivers in China. This will cause greater seasonal volatility of water levels in China’s rivers, and in the long term it will lead to decreased availability of water. Climate change is also expected to increase the occurrence of droughts, flooding, and other extreme weather, which will not just diminish China’s water supply, but also directly threaten lives.

    Continued urbanization could further strain water supplies in major cities. By 2050, roughly 80 percent of China’s population is expected to live in urban areas. This shift will place enormous pressure on cities like Tianjin, which already has the lowest per capita water resources (113 m3) in China.

    To make its cities more resilient to water scarcity, China launched the “sponge city” initiative in 2015 to capture and re-use more rainfall. The initiative began with just 16 cities, but over the last few years has expanded to include 30 cities. By 2030, participating cities must ensure that 80 percent of their urban areas meet standards for collecting rainfall.

    China has taken drastic measures to supply water to parched cities in the north. In 2013 and 2014, the country completed major portions of the South-North Water Diversion Project.3 The herculean effort is designed to transfer water from rivers and reservoirs in the south as far as 1,400 kilometers (km) to northern cities like Beijing and Tianjin. The project already supplies about one-third of all water used in Beijing. Experts have nonetheless criticized it for displacing hundreds of thousands of people and contributing to environmental degradation.  

    At the national level, China’s State Council issued country-wide water management objectives in 2012 known as the “Three Red Lines.” These include limiting national water use to 700 billion m3 per year, increasing the efficiency of industrial water use, and expanding the share of major water sources meeting national quality standards by the year 2030. The Three Red Lines amount to some of the most ambitious national water use standards in the world.

    China and Global Water Security

    Water security issues do not end at national borders. Multiple waterways have been a source of tension between China and its neighbors. The upstream damming of the Brahmaputra River, which flows roughly 2,900 km from China into India and Bangladesh, has sounded alarm bells in India.4 Some fear that China could abruptly alter the flow of the river, harming communities downstream.

    China’s activity along the Mekong River, which flows from China into Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam, has also come under scrutiny. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested in August 2019 that China seeks to control the Mekong River through “a spree of upstream dam building.” Similar concerns emerged following the April 2020 release of a US-funded report on the impact of Chinese dams. The report concludes that China’s 11 upstream dams contributed to record-low water levels in the lower Mekong during 2019, even as the Chinese portion of the river received above-average precipitation.

    Overseas development projects backed by China stand to significantly impact the Mekong as well. There are over 300 dams planned along the Mekong and its tributaries in lower Mekong countries. In Laos, over half of these dams are believed to be associated with Chinese companies.

    Many Chinese-backed dams are connected with the expansive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which extends from countries along China’s borders to regions as far away as South America. Since the BRI was launched in 2013, China has been involved in hydropower projects in dozens of countries around the world. While hydroelectric dams may provide renewable energy to areas in need, they also threaten to severely disrupt ecosystems and worsen existing water security issues.

    Belt and Road Initiative

    As part of the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese companies have helped finance and construct hydropower projects around the world. Learn more about the Belt and Road Initiative and its role in China’s overseas ambitions. Learn more.

    In Indonesia, the Chinese-constructed Batang Toru hydropower plant has drawn criticism from scientists and activists for endangering the surrounding jungle’s fragile ecological balance. Similar concerns have ignited controversy over projects in largely undeveloped natural habitats like the Amazon and Patagonia. In Brazil, local opposition to the Chinese-financed Belo Monte hydroelectric dam caused significant delays during construction.

    Other energy projects likewise tax water resources. China is helping to finance a series of coal-fired power plants in Pakistan that could generate up to 6,600 megawatts of capacity. While these plants would help alleviate energy shortages, they could also use considerable water resources – upwards of 8 million m3 per year combined – in a country already facing severe water stress. ChinaPower

    1. Northern provinces and municipalities include: Beijing, Gansu, Hebei, Heilongjiang, Henan, Inner Mongolia, Jiangsu, Jilin, Liaoning, Ningxia, Shaanxi, Shandong, Shanxi, Tianjin, and Xinjiang.
    2. Based on 2015 population estimates. Includes the following nine states: Chandigarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttrakhand.
    3. Also called the South-North Water Transfer Project.
    4. The Brahmaputra River is known as the Yarlung Zangbo River in Tibet.