China Water Stress May Worsen Even With Transfer Projects

China is likely to have more trouble tapping enough water to fill its needs even though the government is funding an ambitious project to move supplies from the south to the arid north, a report showed.

The findings from the University of East Anglia, published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, paint a grim picture about China’s scarcity challenge for at least the next 15 years.

The British university compiled what it called the first full inventory of physical water transfers and redistribution though trade between Chinese provinces. It showed those transfers won’t do enough to eradicate stresses on water supplies, said Dabo Guan, professor of climate-change economics at the university’s School of International Development.

“China needs to shift its focus to water-demand management instead of a supply-oriented approach if it’s going to seriously address the overwhelming pressures on its water supplies,” Guan said in a statement.

The country’s supply-transfer program “is pouring good water after bad,” he said. “The problems of water-stressed regions aren’t being alleviated and the provinces sharing their water are suffering greatly.”

As much as 65 percent of water supplies in some provinces are earmarked for virtual water redistribution, used for infrastructure and for producing exports.

“Until China significantly improves its water-use efficiency and addresses the impact its expanding economy is having on its natural resources, the situation will continue to deteriorate,” the East Anglia and University of Leeds researchers concluded.

Water Pollution

Guan and Martin Tillotson of Leeds published research in 2014 showing 75 percent of China’s lakes and rivers and 50 percent of its groundwater supplies are contaminated.

“Water pollution is indeed a big, possibly the biggest, environmental issue in China although that’s not so much visible as air pollution,” Guan said by e-mail.

Tillotson, of the Leeds water research center, said: “Even allowing for future efficiency gains in agricultural and industrial water consumption, China’s water transfers are likely to be insufficient to offset increased demand due to the effects of economic and population growth.”

The water-diversion works under construction since 2002 are designed to move supplies hundreds of miles through three vast canal systems. An 890-mile (1,430-kilometer) leg of the project opened last month according to state-run Global Times, allowing Beijing residents to wash food or shower using water that may have been piped from Hubei province.

China has a fifth of Earth’s population yet only 7 percent of its freshwater resources.

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