Friday, October 5, 2007

China's future drying up

Excerpts from a frightening report in The New York Times about a week ago:
SHIJIAZHUANG, China - ...The underground water table is sinking about four feet a year. Municipal wells have already drained two-thirds of the local groundwater.

...A new upscale housing development is advertising waterfront property on lakes filled with pumped groundwater. Another half-built complex, the Arc de Royal, is rising above one of the lowest points in the city’s water table.

“People who are buying apartments aren’t thinking about whether there will be water in the future,” said Zhang Zhongmin, who has tried for 20 years to raise public awareness about the city’s dire water situation....

For three decades, water has been indispensable in sustaining the rollicking economic expansion that has made China a world power. Now, China’s galloping, often wasteful style of economic growth is pushing the country toward a water crisis. Water pollution is rampant nationwide, while water scarcity has worsened... deals cannot solve water problems. Water usage in China has quintupled since 1949, and leaders will increasingly face tough political choices as cities, industry and farming compete for a finite and unbalanced water supply.

...The Communist Party, leery of depending on imports to feed the country, has long insisted on grain self-sufficiency. But growing so much grain consumes huge amounts of underground water...

the immediate challenge is the prosaic task of forcing the world’s most dynamic economy to conserve and protect clean water. Water pollution is so widespread that regulators say a major incident occurs every other day....

By the 1970s, studies show, the water table was already falling. Then Mao’s death and the introduction of market-driven economic reforms spurred a farming renaissance. Production soared, and rural incomes rose. The water table kept falling, further drying out wetlands and rivers....

“Maybe we are like America in the 1920s and 1930s,” he said. “We’re building the country.”

China’s disadvantage, compared with the United States, is that it has a smaller water supply yet almost five times as many people. China has about 7 percent of the world’s water resources and roughly 20 percent of its population.

For years, Chinese officials thought irrigation efficiency was the answer for reversing groundwater declines. Eloise Kendy, a hydrology expert with The Nature Conservancy who has studied the North China Plain, said that farmers had made improvements but that the water table had kept sinking. Ms. Kendy said the spilled water previously considered “wasted” had actually soaked into the soil and recharged the aquifer. Efficiency erased that recharge. Farmers also used efficiency gains to irrigate more land.

Ms. Kendy said scientists had discovered that the water table was dropping because of water lost by evaporation and transpiration from the soil, plants and leaves. This lost water is a major reason the water table keeps dropping, scientists say.

Farmers have no choice. They drill deeper.

...Water in Shijiazhuang, with more than 800 illegal wells, is as scarce as it is in Israel, he said. “In Israel, people regard water as more important than life itself,” he said. “In Shijiazhuang, it’s not that way. People are focused on the economy.”

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