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Solving China's water scarcity problem won't be easy

By Karen Graham     Dec 28, 2014 in Environment
Beijing - Trying to fix China's air pollution problems has been difficult, especially with the country's dependence on coal. But with an ongoing drought and massive population boom in its cities, water scarcity is fast replacing pollution as China's major problem,
To simply say that China doesn't have enough water for its population would be over-simplifying the issue because the country's other environmental problems are all tied in with water scarcity being seen today. We have to look at several issues separately to see how they have been feeding off each other.
Air pollution in China
China has been dealing with an air pollution problem for a number of years, and at times it has reached crisis proportions. Most people remember the shocking levels of air pollution recorded in Beijing in January 2013. The PM 2.5 readings reached 886 µg/m3. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states any reading between 301-500 µg/m3 is considered "Hazardous."
A Factory along the Yangtze River.
A Factory along the Yangtze River.
High Contrast
China's smog problems are hard to sweep under the rug as they say. But for many years, the population lived with bad air quality as a part of their daily lives because they were not aware of the impact that particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter had on their health. The populous also didn't know that the combustion of coal, which makes up 70 percent of China's energy resources, was contributing to the thick smog.
But with an upwardly mobile population and a growing middle-class, people started paying greater attention to environmental matters. They learned that in 2011, over 8,000 people died in four of China's major cities as a result of one pollutant, PM 2.5. And this was due to a number of air pollution sources, from construction to cars, but particularly from the country's vast number of petrochemical plants.
Water and soil pollution is also a very serious threat
In 2012, people learned that at least 40 percent of China's rivers were seriously polluted, and 20 percent of the rivers were so toxic that it was hazardous to come into contact with the waters. Of course, there was an explanation for these ridiculously high levels of water pollution. In 2006, the Vice-Minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration, Pan Yue, is reported to have said that the ongoing incidents of toxic pollution of China's major rivers was due to "the irrational placement of industrial facilities."
Screen grab from video showing the extent of pollution of many of China s rivers.
Screen grab from video showing the extent of pollution of many of China's rivers.
Link TV
Pan Yue also reported there were an “estimated 10,000 petrochemical plants along the Yangtze and 4000 along the Yellow Rivers.” The lessons of 2006 were apparently ignored because, in 2012, the number of water pollution accidents had jumped to 1,700 annually. The frightening result of all these industrial pollution accidents is simply that the average person doesn't really know for sure if the water coming out of the tap is safe to drink.
Some might ask why the deteriorating water quality levels didn't show up sooner. Trying to get a simple explanation is not easy. According to a report in July, 2012, the frequency of water testing is too low, and only 40 percent of water treatment plants in 35 major cities have the ability to test for all 106 toxic and hazardous indicators. There are literally only a few independent water quality testing companies in the country, and most of the testing is done in-house by the same water treatment facility being evaluated. This can and sometimes does lead to questionable results.
In April of this year, China's state media reported that 60 percent of the country's groundwater was polluted, according to the Guardian. This was a severe blow to the country's environmental resources. “According to China's underground water standards, water of relatively poor quality can only be used for drinking after proper treatment. Water of very poor quality cannot be used as a source of drinking water,” said the state news media.
Beijing's difficulty in dealing with the water scarcity problem
China Premier Li Keqiang has only recently shared his environmental concerns with local government officials, urging them to do more in dealing with water issues, from conservation to water diversion projects. But this is only a small part of the efforts needed to deal with all the environmental problems facing China.
It has been said before that China's massive surge in industrialization, coupled with an increasing population spurt in its major cities has created many of the pollution problems being seen today. And as long as local industries still only have to answer to local politicians, pollution of waterways and the air won't get much better. And as long as people living outside the major cities have little or no recourse, but to live with poor water quality, or in some cases, a lack of clean water at all, then nothing will have changed.
Tianjin desalination plant. This part is only phase one of the water desalination project. When fini...
Tianjin desalination plant. This part is only phase one of the water desalination project. When finished, it will be five times larger.
screen grab/Best News
The government in Beijing says 70 percent of all the water used in China goes to agriculture, and another 20 percent is used in the coal industry. Both of these industries are located in the north of China, a region that only receives 20 percent of the country's rainfall. As a result, there is not enough water to meet the demands of industry or for drinking. This was the reason for the construction of the North-South water diversion project. But the water scarcity problem facing China is growing as climate change is impacting southern China, now in a prolonged drought.
The logical answer, to many experts, lies in desalination plants. China has had a lot of experience in solving problems using huge mega-projects, and large desalination plants are already under construction or have already been built, While the construction of a desalination plant is relatively easier than the over-budget water diversion project, the plant itself is very much energy intensive. This results in the water being expensive. So far, most of the desalination water is being used for agriculture and power plants.
There are a number of drawbacks to desalination, and with power plants dependent on coal, no one wants a desalination plant in their backyard. But for the average citizen, it is fully expected that the government will solve the water scarcity crisis quickly. So it is no wonder that Beijing may be depending on desalination plants to get the country out of a water crisis.
More about important resource, groundwater supplies, desalination plants, high energy demands, China's water shortage
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