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China's Water Problem Is Already Here

China’s unprecedented growth has brought millions out of poverty and made the country a geopolitical heavyweight, but its environment is footing the bill for this growth. Beijing’s citizens are choking on the city’s toxic smog, and the country spends an estimated 5.8 percent of its GDP on health care costs, premature deaths, and material losses associated with air pollution. The country’s water supply might be an even bigger problem.

There are two components to China’s water problem: scarcity and pollution. About 28,000 rivers have disappeared over the past few decades. The country’s has just one-quarter of  the world’s average per capita water resources. Two-fifths of what water the country does have is so toxic that humans can’t safely touch it, let alone consume it. And “dead animal flotillas” have mysteriously surfaced in rivers recently. There’s not much water to work with.

This water scarcity is going to hit China’s energy industry especially hard. China has the world’s largest shale reserves, but fracking is a very water-intensive process. For that reason, don’t expect China to catch up to the US in the shale energy boom any time soon. Desalinization plants are a possible solution, but they’re terribly expensive. We’re more likely to see China continue to dam its rivers, even if that means depriving countries downstream of water access. Beijing has no problem with playing the role of regional strongman.

The Financial Times has an in-depth write up of China’s water problems and focuses on Minqin county, where water scarcity is forcing farmers off of their land and into China’s cities, trading water problems for air quality problems. Choices like that can make for a very angry populace.

Pollution is more than a threat to China’s environment and its industry; it’s a threat to its leaders.

[Gobi desert image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • MWFlorida

    While I agree with the general conclusion that China is seriously short of clean fresh water, I take exception to the gratuitous shot at fracking.

    About 19,000 wells were fracked in the U.S. during 2012. The average water usage was 3 million gallons per well. That may sound like a lot, but it is really peanuts.

    In 2005 (the latest year for which I could find data, but water usage isn’t changing much) the U.S. used 44,200 million gallons PER DAY just for public water supply. Irrigation and power generation use many multiples of that quantity.

    If you multiply out the numbers, in 2012 fracking consumed 0.35% of the water used for public supply and well less than 0.1% of total water usage.

    The water usage argument against fracking is yet another example of environmentalist sensationalism.

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