Water in China: A Thirsty Country


paul prescott / Shutterstock.com

China faces severe water shortages. Its current water per capita is one quarter of the world average, yet its overall per capita usage is still low by international standards but this will increase over the coming decades. The water that China does have is often badly polluted and is inefficiently used. Moreover, China’s water is unequally distributed with the Yangtze River basin and areas to the south enjoying 80% of China’s naturally available water compared with just 20% in China’s north.

China’s water scarcity will challenge its future economic expansion. Already, agriculture, industry and China’s growing cities all compete for scarce water resources, as do China’s different regions. Decades-old economic priorities such as food self-sufficiency will be increasingly difficult to maintain because water used in industrial output creates more economic value than it does in agriculture. Water scarcity could also test China’s political stability. Increasing illness caused by polluted water is driving up healthcare costs and generating more internal dissent. In 2005, the Chinese government acknowledged that 50,000 environmentally related “mass incidents” (a euphemism for protests) occurred, many of which were sparked by water degradation.

Population, Ecology and Water Scarcity

Right from China’s earliest dynasties great attention was paid to agricultural productivity. The Chinese bureaucracy mobilized the Chinese masses to construct irrigation systems and to clear land. This created a feedback loop, where increased agricultural productivity led to a rise in population, requiring further hydro-engineering and agricultural innovation to maintain China’s swelling numbers. In this way, China has remained the world’s most populous country for thousands of years. Yet, until the 1978 market reforms, China remained a largely agrarian society. China never achieved sufficient per capita economic growth to drive down a natural reduction in the country’s birth rate. Instead, large families of many sons offered rural parents security both in terms of providing labor for farming and care in old age. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, peace and improvements in nutrition, sanitation and healthcare saw Chinese mortality rates plummet. Moreover, until 1970, Mao Zedong encouraged population growth. As a result, China’s population doubled in less than thirty years from approximately 550 million in 1950 to a little over 1 billion in 1982. China’s population stands at 1.35 billion today, and is expected to peak at between 1.4 and 1.5 billion by 2030.

Impact on the Hydrological Cycle

In order to feed its enormous population, since the 1950s, China has increased efforts to create new agricultural and grazing land through the clearing of forests, the filling of lakes, the draining of swamps and wetlands, and the creation of large irrigation projects. This process has impacted China’s hydrological cycle. When land is cleared of plant life through unsustainable farming and grazing methods, the local hydrological cycle is disrupted, and desiccation – the drying out of the environment – occurs. Instead of catching precipitation which then permeates the soil, areas that are deforested, over-grazed and over-farmed allow surface water to run immediately into streams, instead of returning repeatedly to the region as rain through the process of evapotranspiration. China’s areas of desert or deforested land have increased significantly since the 1950s. Today approximately 27%, around 2.5 million km², of China’s land is desert or suffering desertification, although China’s deserts have begun to shrink since 2005 due to a massive reforestation campaign launched by the government. In the north and northwest of China, it has been estimated that the average annual precipitation has decreased by one third between the 1950s and the 1980s; overall China has 350 billion m³ less water than it had at the start of the century, equivalent to the amount of water that flows through the mouth of the Mississippi River in nine months. Desertification and deforestation have also caused sediment levels to significantly increase in all of China’s river systems due to severe soil erosion. Soil erosion has forced Chinese peasants to constantly seek new, often less suitable, land for farming and animal husbandry, in what has become an environmentally destructive feedback cycle.

Water Scarcity

As China’s population has swelled over the millennia, its per capita water has decreased. China now has an estimated 2,029 m3 of water per capita per annum, one quarter the world’s average. This per capita water figure is expected to decline further as China’s population peaks. This water scarcity is exacerbated by China’s uneven water distribution. China’s precipitation patterns are heavily affected by the East Asian monsoonal climate. Its mountainous geography drains the monsoonal rains as they move from the southeast into the northwest of the continent. In 2000, for instance, southern China, the Yangtze River basin and areas to its south, received approximately 80% of China’s naturally available water, yet the areas supported 54% of its population, 35% of its arable land, and 55% of its GDP. Northern China collected only 20% of China’s water to maintain 46% of the population, 65% of the arable land and 45% of its GDP. In some northern areas, strains on water resources are even worse. Beijing’s and Tianjin’s Hai River basin, for instance, receives approximately 1.5% of China’s water to support 10% of its population and 11% of its arable land.

Approximately 400 of China’s cities currently face water shortages, and over 300 million people drink water contaminated with pollutants including arsenic, excessive fluoride, toxins from untreated factory wastewater, agricultural chemicals, leaching landfill waste and human sewage. Moreover, China’s per capita water footprint is growing. China will not only have more people competing for its finite water resources in the coming decades, but each person will individually demand more water. Today, China’s overall water footprint per capita is still about half that of the US, but is expected to grow by between 40% and 50% by 2030. Factors such as higher living standards, increasing urbanization and further industrialization are driving water demand. China’s rising wealth has meant, for instance, that its citizens are eating substantially more meat. The production of one kilogram of beef requires 600 liters of water compared with the 100 liters required for a kilogram of wheat. This shift in diet can be seen in China’s food footprint numbers. In 1961, China used 260 m³ of water per capita to grow food; by 2003 this figure had more than trebled to 860 m³.

Agricultural, Urbanization, Industrialization, Water Wastage

Currently, 62% of China’s water is used for agriculture, a sector which is responsible for approximately 13% of the country’s GDP. In the agricultural sector, demand for water for irrigation is currently about 400 billion m³, but this is projected to reach 665 billion m³ by 2030. Yet agriculture water usage is extremely unproductive, with 45% of agricultural water lost before it even reaches crops. Water used for industrial output is 70 times more productive in terms of financial value than that used in wheat production. As water becomes increasingly scarce, the agricultural sector risks losing water resources to industrial production, especially if China increases the price of water to better reflect its true scarcity.

China’s growing urbanization is also requiring more water per capita. 70% of Chinese citizens are projected to be living in cities by 2030, up from 51% today. This is significant because urban dwellers consume three times as much water and energy as rural residents. Between 2000 and 2010, for instance, the World Bank estimated that China’s urban water consumption increased by 60%. Moreover, it is estimated that 25% of China’s future electricity growth needed to power its cities will be generated by coal plants. Coal mining, processing, combustion and coal-to-chemical industries are responsible for 22% of the nation’s total water consumption, second only to agriculture. By 2020, the coal sector is expected to consume about 27% of China’s total water. Moreover, China’s urban water distribution networks are particularly leaky. These leaks equal 18% of total urban water supplies on average, or about 1.5% of China’s total water withdrawals.

Overall, the industrial sector uses 23% of China’s water. China’s major industrial water ValeStock / Shutterstock.com users are the metallurgy, timber processing, paper and pulp, petroleum and chemical industries. Water productivity in Chinese industry is also low by international standards. Only 40% of its industrially-used water is recycled, compared with up to 85% in developed countries. Indeed, China’s overall water productivity is poor, estimated to be $3.60 per m³, lower than the average of $4.80 per m³ for middle-income countries, and $35.80 per m³ for high-income countries. The one positive aspect of all of this inefficiency is that there is ample room for improvement with relatively simple measures.

Depletion of Aquifers and Lakes

Extensive irrigation has always been essential to China’s agricultural productivity. Indeed, massive irrigation works built during the Maoist era enabled food production to keep pace with the rapid population growth of the time. China draws on both its rivers and large underground aquifers to irrigate its crops. Irrigated land produces nearly 75% of China’s cereals and more than 90% of its cotton, fruits, vegetables and other agricultural commodities on around half of the farmlands throughout the country. Yet, according to the Ministry of Water Resources, China now uses as much as 60% of the water running in many of its rivers, including the Liao and Yellow Rivers, and as much as 90% of the Huai River. China has increasingly turned to aquifers and lakes to meet water demands no longer satisfied by rain and river water alone. Groundwater now provides potable water for nearly 70% of China’s population and irrigation for approximately 40% of its agricultural land. Nationally, groundwater usage has almost doubled since 1970, and now accounts for 20% of China’s total water usage.

Aquifers are especially important in China’s north, where farmers have been relying heavily on groundwater resources to increase agricultural yields. Yet China is now draining its aquifers at an unsustainable rate. At current rates of depletion, the World Bank estimates that China’s northern aquifers could effectively run dry in as little as 30 years. China’s northern megacities now rely on underground water sources for two-thirds of their needs. For example, in Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing, aquifer levels are dropping by approximately 3 meters annually, forcing the digging of ever deeper wells which increases the risk of both saltwater and arsenic intruding into the water supply, as well as increasing the likelihood of land subsidence. With aquifers and rivers suffering from overuse, lakes are also diminishing. The province of Hebei has already lost a staggering 969 of its 1052 lakes.

Water Pollution

Despite China’s efforts over the last three decades, water pollution has spread from the coastal to inland areas and from the surface to underground water resources. An estimated 70% of China’s rivers and lakes are now polluted. In 2009, 57% of the 7 monitored river basins had pollution levels of I-III, suitable for drinking, swimming, household use, and able to support aquatic life. 24% of China’s rivers had levels of IV-V, water unfit for swimming, but suitable for industrial purpose. 19% had V+, meaning that the water is considered useless, unfit for industry or agriculture and unsafe for human contact even after treatment. 23% of China’s key lakes and reservoirs had water grades of I-III, 42% IV-V and 35% V+. 2.3% of groundwater in 8 regions was rated I-II, 23.9% was graded III, and 73.8% ranked IV-V.

Only a year later (2010), party officials outlined their goals for the future in the 12th Five Year Plan, which aimed for 60% of water between grades I and III, with no more than 15% in the Grade V and V+ categories. As of 2013, 44.3% of the water in the Songhua River Basin was classified as Grade IV and below. In the Huai River and Hai River Basins, 40.4% and 60.9% of all water fell into the Grade IV or worse category, respectively. Though these numbers are still relatively high, they are on track with China’s goals set forth in the 12th Five Year Plan.

Township and village industrial enterprises, in particular, often do not treat their waste water. These small-scale enterprises have little environmental monitoring and are frequently engaged in all manner of heavily polluting production, such as the operation of paper mills, tanneries and breweries. Similarly, townships and villages often inadequately treat their domestic waste. About 80% of China’s 7500 most polluting factories are located on rivers, lakes, or in heavily populated areas. These factories frequently release untreated waste and chemicals into China’s waters either intentionally or by accident. A recent example was the 2012 cadmium spill in Guangxi which polluted an approximately 100 km stretch of the Longjiang River at a level of more than five times the official limit, contaminating water supplies for Liuzhou, a city of 3.2 million people. Cadmium is poisonous and can cause cancer. The same factories also release dangerous airborne pollutants that are absorbed into groundwater or contaminate rivers by way of urban runoff. Some of the most harmful are categorized as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and an estimated 90% of water located in sources near Chinese cities is now dangerously polluted because of their presence.

Rural areas have also seen an increase in water pollution due to chemical pesticides and fertilizers seeping into groundwater sites. For millennia, China’s farmers produced agriculture through “organic” farming methods. Farmers collected every bit of organic waste to ferment for fertilizer. Nothing was wasted, and even human waste, or “night soil”, went into “honey buckets” to transport to the fields. Every winter and spring farmers dredged nearby rivers and canals to add sediment to the fertilizer. Particularly in the south, dense grass at the water’s edge was added to pig fodder, which, after being digested by the pigs, produced manure and helped keep the rivers and lakes clear from vegetation. The entire process of recycling was labor-intensive but efficient. The rivers and lakes remained relatively clean despite thousands of years of intensive farming.

Yet, since 1978, fertilizer applications in China have increased fivefold. In general, animal and human feces are no longer collected for fertilizer, and instead are discharged untreated into rivers. Chemical fertilizer runoff has significantly accelerated eutrophication of many of China’s lakes such as Dian Chi in Yunnan Province, Chao Hu in Anhui Province and Tai Hu in Hubei Province where algae blooms absorb a significant portion of the lake’s oxygen, choking off fish and other aquatic life. Large algae blooms also broke out right before the 2008 Olympics, forcing Beijing to launch a massive emergency clean-up to ensure the sailing events could go ahead as scheduled in Qingdao, in Shandong.

Economic and Health Cost

The World Bank estimated that China’s water crisis is reducing China’s GDP by pcruciatti / Shutterstock.com approximately 2.3% annually, with 1.3% attributable to water scarcity, and the other 1% caused by the cost of water pollution. These estimates do not include the costs of ecological deterioration caused from the drying up of lakes and rivers and from eutrophication. Nor do they reflect the economic cost of disease caused by water pollution, conservatively estimated at an additional 0.5% of GDP. In 2002, the WHO reported mortality from water-borne diarrhea-related illness in China at 108.4 per 100,000, compared with 11 per 100,000 in Vietnam and 5 per 100,000 in Thailand. In 2007, the OECD estimated that 30,000 rural children die each year from diarrhea because of water pollution. In China’s most polluted areas, water has also been blamed for the recent high rates of various health abnormalities including liver and stomach cancer, stunted growth, miscarriages and birth defects.

Regional and national food supply has also suffered due to water pollution. A study in Xingang Village in Jiangsu Province showed that rice yield dropped 77% from 9,750 kg per hectare to about 2,250 kg per hectare. The remaining crop is also of dubious quality, often showing signs of heavy metal leaching from polluted local water. In 2011, it was estimated that up to 10% of China’s rice crop might contain unsafe or nearly unsafe levels of cadmium as a result of widespread irrigation with cadmium-poisoned water.

China has also seen a stunning rise in cancer rates, often localized to certain villages located near areas of heavy industrial activity, where the air and water are both extremely polluted. These villages have become colloquially known as Aizheng Cun, which literally translates as “Cancer Village.” In 2010, the annual death rate for Chinese citizens as a result of blood, bone, breast, liver, and lung cancers was estimated to be 1.2 million lives lost per year. By 2014, that figure doubled with The Lancet Oncology estimating that 2.4 million premature deaths in China as a result of various cancers.

Sanitation also remains a key issue with regard to China’s water supply. In 2008, 327 million Chinese did not have direct plumbing access to drinking water and 535 million were without properly sanitized water. This led to an estimated 62,800 deaths, mostly affecting young children. By 2011, the number of people lacking proper sanitation decreased to 471 million, but the number of Chinese lacking piped-in drinking water increased to 401 million. This sanitation improvement comes on the heels of annual US$10.8 billion government-driven investments from 2006-2010 in domestic sanitation. Water-borne disease, however, is still a major economic drain for China, costing around US$11 billion annually.

Flooding – Yellow River and Yangtze River

Not only are desertification and deforestation exacerbating China’s water scarcity, they are also aggravating China’s flooding challenges. The Chinese Minister of Water Resources, Chen Lei estimated in 2007 that China has lost 2% of national GDP annually to flooding since 1990, and a recent study placed the total costs of floods from 2000 to 2012 at 105 billion RMB annually (US $17 billion). Flooding has challenged Chinese rulers for millennia. From 602 BCE to 1938 AD it is estimated that major collapses of Yellow River dikes occurred once every two or three years. Then, every hundred years or so, the river would change its course. Many of the resulting floods were some of the deadliest natural disasters ever recorded. For millennia the Chinese constructed dikes along the lower reaches of the Yellow River trying to contain its torrents, yet constant ecological destruction along the upper reaches increased erosion which intensified river silting. The silting raised the river bed above the countryside. This “suspended” river greatly increased flood damage when the river inevitably breached its dykes. After 1949, the CCP built almost 3000 dams on the Yellow River, and heavily reinforced its levees and embankments. These hydro-engineering projects involved the equivalent of 500 million workdays and 1.4 billion m³ of reinforced concrete – enough to build 13 Great Walls. Yet many of the Yellow River’s dams have fallen short of physical and economic targets, and have resulted in huge losses of forest lands, wildlife habitat and aquatic biodiversity. Global warming has also increased evaporation at many of the dam sites.

Similarly, parts of the Yangtze River have flooded continually for millennia. Yet, as deforestation and reclamation of land has increased, floods have become more frequent and more destructive. The CCP attempted to solve the flooding by increasing the height of 3600km of embankments and more than 30,000km of levies. The work required more than 4 billion m³ of dirt and stone, or enough material to put a wall around the globe three times. Yet these raised structures could not offset the loss of water absorption capacity caused by the rapid deforestation and agricultural land reclamation that occurred during the same period. As a result, the Yangtze experienced a series of significant floods in 1980, 1981, 1983, 1991 and 1996. Then in June 1998, China suffered one of its worst floods in 40 years, leaving 3,700 people dead, 15 million homeless and causing $26 billion of economic damages. The reinforced embankments and levees proved largely ineffective, with approximately 9,000 of them collapsing. As well as providing hydropower and improved navigation, the controversial Three Gorges Dam was built in large part to control the Yangtze’s flooding, although many scientists believe that the Yangtze is still vulnerable. Additionally, after the 1998 flood, China began to place greater importance on the role of ecology in flood prevention, and has begun an extensive campaign of reforestation and forest preservation.


Because of the variability of the monsoonal rains, like flooding, drought has plagued the country for millennia. Yet desiccation in many areas has significantly increased China’s drought challenges. Overall, droughts have become more severe, prolonged and frequent during the past 57 years, especially for northeastern and central China. China has been essentially self-sufficient in grain for decades. This self-sufficiency camouflages the fact that China produces one-sixth of the world’s wheat output and one-fifth of global corn. China is thus enormously important to the world’s food supply. If drought forces China to import large quantities of food, it significantly impacts world food prices. Yet, in every year since 2005, drought placed China’s grain crops at risk, and the government was forced to spend billions of dollars digging wells and cloud seeding to encourage rain. Most recently, in 2010-2011, northern China suffered its worst drought in 60 years, impacting most of China’s wheat producing regions. At its peak, it is estimated that 36% of China’s northern wheat fields were affected, and that 2.57 million people and 2.79 million livestock suffered from a lack of water. The water shortages also affected around 161 million people, with an economic cost estimated at $2.8 billion.

Drought has not been restricted to China’s drier north. In western Sichuan, for example, rapid deforestation caused Sichuan’s forest cover to fall from 3.6 million hectares in in 1985 to 2.34 million hectares in 1995. In the 1950s, serious droughts hit Sichuan about once every three years. In the 1960s, this became once every two years and by the 1980s, drought troubled Sichuan counties annually. In 2010, more than 20 million people in Yunnan, Guangxi, Guizhou, Sichuan and Chongqing were left without adequate drinking water and a 2011 Sichuan drought affected almost 8 million people.

Guangxi provides another of the many examples throughout the country where drought conditions have worsened in recent decades. Historians have written that from 1618-1943, major droughts hit the region once every 33 years. From 1946 to 1972, the interval fell to every six years, and in the 1980s, it fell to every two years. There were four major droughts in the three-year period from 1989 to 1991. Since 2000, drought has plagued Guangxi annually. In 2004, for instance, 1100 Guangxi reservoirs went dry, and hydropower generation was cut dramatically. In 2007, one million residents in Guangxi and 250,000 in Guangdong faced water shortages during the worst regional drought in more than 50 years. In 2009, Guangxi, which produces 60% of China’s sugar cane, had a 10% drop in its production due to drought conditions. In 2010, 12 of the 14 cities in Guangxi were affected by water shortages.

Climate Change

How climate change will impact China’s water scarcity is still being studied. However, global warming is having an undeniable effect on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, which is the source of both the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. An estimated 80% of Tibet’s 46,377 glaciers are now melting more quickly than originally thought, at an average rate of 7% per year. Himalayan glaciers release water steadily throughout the year, most critically during the hot, dry sunny periods when water downstream is most needed. Complete disappearance of the glaciers could eventually cause China’s Yellow River to flow only during the rainy season. Greater melting rates could also increase short-term runoff from the plateau, worsening soil erosion which in turn could lead to greater desertification. Already, recent glacial retreat and desiccation has impacted the local ecosystem. Over a third of the Tibetan grasslands has transformed into semi-desert conditions, which has forced approximately 700,000 Tibetan nomads to abandon animal husbandry. Global warming also seems to be aggravating the evaporation of Qinghai-Tibetan lakes and wetlands.

Power Outages and Reduced River Navigability

China’s water scarcity has also resulted in lower water levels of many of China’s major river systems. For instance, Chinese researchers have discovered that the volume of water entering the Yangtze River at its source on the Tibetan plateau has dropped by 15% over the last four decades. Persistent low levels in China’s rivers mean that the country will be challenged by power outages due to inadequate flow through its hydropower dams. Hydropower accounts for approximately 22% of China’s total installed capacity. It is estimated that the lack of water to run hydropower dams has cut hydroelectric power production by 20% and China may be forced to burn 1 million more metric tons of coal a week to cover the shortfall.

Low levels of water also mean that parts of China’s rivers will continue to become periodically unnavigable, disrupting inland shipping routes. In May 2011, the water level of the Yangtze was so low that officials closed a section of the river from Wuhan to Yueyang. More than 60% of goods transported on inland rivers in China travel down the Yangtze, with shipping volumes at 910 million tons in 2010.


Serious water scarcity looms in China’s future. This scarcity is likely to increase conflict and competition between regions, sectors of the economy and between urban and rural residents. It will also raise tensions between the government and parts of society that lack access to adequate, clean water sources. Moreover, the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau is a source of rivers that reach India, Bangladesh, Burma, Bhutan, Nepal, Cambodia, Pakistan, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. China’s damming, polluting, and use of international rivers is likely to increase tensions with these countries. Many of these countries, especially India, are already facing their own severe water crisis, which will only be exacerbated if China diverts river water that needs to be shared internationally. Additionally, China’s rapid industrialization and poor waste treatment systems now threatens to export China’s pollution and water-borne disease to its neighbors downstream. Political relations could be further stressed if water shortages cause mass migrations of people. In fact, some analysts suggest that the so-called “oil wars” of the 20th century could be replaced by “water wars” in the 21st. China’s food supply is increasingly vulnerable to water shortages. In the future, it is likely that China will need to turn to global food sources to meet its future nutritional needs. This in turn will increase food prices around the world.

China’s immediate water solution is to use water more conservatively, and to improve pollution control. Historically, China has solved growing water demands through the construction of massive hydro-engineering projects such as theThree Gorges Dam and the South-North Water Diversion Project. In the future, China will increasingly need to solve its water deficit through ecological conservation, pollution management, more efficient water usage, and a redistribution of economic output by raising the price of water to reflect its scarcity and true economic value.