March 30, 2006
China Grapples with Growing Water Shortages
By Ben Blanchard
YINCHUAN, China -- Wang Zhanguo can't remember the last time it rained.
"I think it rained once or twice last year, but I'm not sure," said Wang, a Muslim who lives in China's bleak, remote northwestern region of Ningxia.
"It definitely rained the year before that," he added, sounding a little more certain.
Water -- or rather lack of it -- has shaped Wang's life, living as he does in one of China's most arid regions, where sand dunes lap at fields and dust storms regularly harry its people.
When he was a small boy, his family gave up the struggle of trying to eke crops from the stony, dusty soil and moved from their farm in the even drier southern part of Ningxia to the regional capital, Yinchuan.
Since then, Wang, 23, has worked as a coal miner, a building site labourer and as a long-distance truck driver. He does not plan to return to the old family farm.
"My grandparents say it used to be much greener before. They say it once rained for an entire week," he said, looking out from the barren Helan mountains outside of Yinchuan at the desert, pitted with dried up river beds and abandoned fields.
But Ningxia is just part of a wider problem -- China is running out of water.
The figures are stark.
Per capita water resources in the world's most populous country are less than a third of the global average, and falling.
More than 300 million people in rural areas lack clean drinking water, and many are being slowly poisoned by water that contains too much fluorine, salt and even arsenic.
Tackling these issues is a key part of Beijing's economic and social development plan for the next five years, but the problems are deep-rooted.
More than a decade of near double-digit economic growth coupled with a still expanding population has put an almost unbearable strain on water demand in China.
Pollution is so severe the Ministry of Water Resources estimates 40 percent of water in the country's 1,300 or so major rivers is fit only for industrial or agricultural use.
"The Rhine and the Thames became cesspools during industrialization but China's industrialization is moving so quickly now that it's going to take a gigantic effort to address this," said Dermot O'Gorman, the WWF's China representative.
"The negative effects of pollution and the health effects of dirty drinking water can undermine the development on which you depend," he told Reuters.
China's water is also unevenly distributed, and flooding causes serious damage every year in central and southern China.
To address this and help alleviate drought in the north, the government is spending almost 500 billion yuan ($62.29 billion) on a diversion scheme to ship the water north.
One of the rivers to benefit from this plan is the Yellow River, the country's longest and once known as "China's sorrow," for the millions of flood deaths it once inflicted.
The Yellow River today is a shadow of its former self, hit by massive extraction of water for farming and industrial use and declining levels of rainfall. In some years, the river runs dry before reaching the sea.
Ill-conceived irrigation has made matters worse. In arid Ningxia, rice is grown beside the river.
"It's probably the craziest place to grow rice. Look at the evaporation in the summer -- it's 40 degrees Celsius and doesn't see rain for months," said Vaclav Smil, a professor at Canada's University of Manitoba and a Chinese water expert.
"The rational thing would be to shut it down and walk away from it, but now you have all these people depending on it," he told Reuters.
"What would you do with these people? Where would you shove them? Gansu? It would be the same," Smil said, referring to Ningxia's equally dry neighboring province.
The prolonged drought has forced Lao Tian to look for alternative forms of work -- sifting for sand to build a new mosque in Xiaokouzi hamlet, in the hills overlooking Yinchuan.
"Life here is very bitter," said Tian, 54, wearing a traditional white Muslim skull cap. "No rain means it's harder to raise crops and I have to find other work."
Signs warning of flash floods are joined by newer arrivals, threatening fines for smoking, the risk of setting the stunted trees on fire now greater than the danger of being swept away by a flood.
In downtown Yinchuan, bold signs proclaim the establishment of a "water saving city" by 2010, part of a larger government effort to get the man on the street to save water.
"They don't have it and they don't manage it right, but they somehow manage it a little bit better every year so the crisis never fully happens," said Smil.
(Additional reporting by Shanghai newsroom)