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China’s Looming Water Crisis is a Danger to Us All


China’s deteriorating environment is evident to anyone who lives under smoggy skies in Beijing, who saw the pigs floating downstream through central Shanghai, or who has ventured out to China’s rural farmland to talk to farmers about the polluted water used for drinking and irrigation. On his blog earlier this month, journalist Eric Fish argued that the China’s economic slowdown is just one of several challenges that could derail China’s progress toward eventually taking over from the United States as the world’s foremost superpower. Here we’ll take a look at one of those challenges in more detail: the water crisis.

Buzzfeed helpfully and entertainingly provides an overview of China’s water and pollution problems and their effects. This crisis is a danger to us all, not least because left unchecked, China’s water problems could threaten national security. Already neighboring countries have protested against China damming some of Asia’s largest and most important rivers; the dams influence water flow, floods, sedimentation, wildlife, and people’s livelihoods in other countries downstream. In Japan and Taiwan and even San Francisco, you can see pollution floating over from China.

Much of China’s environmental crisis has to do with water. The entire landscape is changing. 28,000 rivers disappeared over the past 20 years, according to a Chinese government study. 20 lakes disappear every year, according to another study. Dams have displaced thousands of people to move, often to arid areas where they struggle to adapt. Water is vital for economic growth but the use of China’s resources has been hectic and unregulated. In 2007 a large river system in central China turned red and foamy from toxic sludge that nearby industrial plants were pumping out. The Gobi desert is expanding by an area almost the size of Rhode Island every year. There is now a dangerous shortage of water suitable for humans and animals and plants to consume. As the WSJ reported in an astounding article last month, “Estimates from state-affiliated researchers say that anywhere between 8% and 20% of China’s arable land, some 25 to 60 million acres, may now be contaminated with heavy metals. A loss of even 5% could be disastrous, taking China below the “red line” of 296 million acres of arable land that are currently needed, according to the government, to feed the country’s 1.35 billion people.”

Coal consumes much of what water China has left, and coal will continue to fuel China’s growth. China’s twelfth five-year plan approved 16 new coal plants for construction. As a result, the skies are polluted and the rivers and lakes are dry, dirty, unfit for consumption, and unable to support crops.

What does the future look like? Communist Party leaders have set out to tackle China’s environmental problems, with questionable determination and few signs of success. Several initiatives praise conservation and limited use of water. Can science and technology do the trick? Breakthroughs in biology could increase plant yields and turn desert into arable land, and better robotics could lower the necessary amount of water used in agriculture. But that is years down the road and there is no guarantee it will work as advertised. The authorities are spending tens of billions of dollars on a pipeline to bring water to the parched north, equivalent to diverting the Mississippi for the water needs of Boston and New York, and new desalination plants are popping up on the coast. But even much of what comes out of the desalination plants is being consumed by the coal industry, creating a cycle of pollution and industrialization that only worsens the problem.

The degradation of the environment is “perhaps the single most significant determinant of whether the Communist Party will maintain its legitimacy in coming years,” one prominent researcher told the WSJ. Water is vital for human beings to survive, just as preserving, purifying, or using technology to revitalize China’s water resources is vital to Communist Party leaders’ ability to lead China onward. Are they up to the task?

[Man wearing a mask in Beijing image courtesy of Getty]

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  • TheRadicalModerate

    Unlike oil or gas or arable land, water is not a scarce resource. Fresh water is scarce, but you can make fresh water, or move it from a place where it’s plentiful to a place where it’s not. It’s expensive to do so, ruinously expensive for the present, but probably not so much once demand for manufactured fresh water increases to the point where the market can work its magic.

    Manufacturing fresh water requires lots of energy and lots of infrastructure. Two ways you can get the cost down:

    1) Clever technology. Desalination is a hot venture market right now. Lots of R&D is going on with forward- and reverse-osmosis schemes. The name of the game is to increase the scale of water production for the same amount of energy.

    2) An energy breakthrough. Nukes, fission or, better still, fusion, lets you scale desalination without the use of clever technology; you just boil the water. The name of the game is to increase energy density cheaply. This is yet another reason why an energy policy that concentrates on wind and solar, at the expense of nuclear technology, demonstrates a fundamental unseriousness. (Pet peeve: you can dramatically increase the chance of economical fusion power simply by diversifying the research portfolio and throwing an extra $5B a year at the problem. It’s a hard problem, not an impossible one, and success solves our energy issues forever. Moderate risk to gigantic reward.)

    Of course, at the end of the day you have to build lots and lots of aqueducts. But we’re pretty good at building pipelines these days, especially pipelines that carry substances that aren’t toxic.

    • Edward Royce

      You’re misunderstanding the issue. One of the biggest problems is that much of the water that they’re -starting- with is heavily polluted. Simply boiling water and then condensing the vapor isn’t sufficient by itself when there are serious toxic chemicals mixed in that have varying boiling points. And then there is the sheer scale of the problem itself. It is rather easy to simply write “boil the water” but that really only works in somewhat small quantities. Here we’re talking billions of gallons. And trying to condense boiled steam into water for cost effective agriculture is frankly several steps beyond fiscal insanity on par with farming skyscrapers. It just won’t work.

      As for commercial fusion; no just throwing many more billions at it won’t accomplish anything other than ensuring that research scientists get work. There is no guarantee nor has there been for the last 40 years or more. At this point I’d be impressed if they could actually run a fusion reactor for an hour commercially viable or not. That they haven’t been able to is not encouraging.

      • TheRadicalModerate

        I agree with you that scale is the big problem, but I’m not so sure about decontaminating water with heavy metals in it. (Organic volatiles are pretty easy–at least the ones with boiling points lower than water, which IIRC is most of them.) Salt water, high scale, and aqueducts seem like a better way to go. Never do with finesse what you can do with brute force and ignorance.

        Also, remember that a lot of osmosis membranes (reverse or forward) are designed for decontamination. No boiling involved–at least not of water. (Some of the forward osmosis schemes use solutes with designed low boiling points to draw the fresh water, then get boiled away for low energy.)

        Finally, on fusion: I agree that success is not guaranteed. The thing is, if it is successful, it pretty much solves everything. Furthermore, we’re no longer talking about ITER as the only game in town (although you wouldn’t know it from the current funding profile). There are enough alternatives, ranging from pretty wacky all the way to things with as good a chance as a tokamak, that some judicious funding–fairly low–has a good chance of working.

        It is also possible that we can finesse our way out of our water problems with a hodgepodge of clever technologies that all work at low energy. But I’d put the odds of that at about the same level as developing economical fusion. (Or we could do economical fission as a technological sure thing. Politically, not so much.) Advanced societies need lots and lots of energy, and very high energy density. Water simply isn’t a problem with enough energy. Hedging one’s bets is a smart strategy.

    • crocodilechuck

      Your post displays an ignorance of thermodynamics:

      “The name of the game is to increase the scale of water production for the same amount of energy”

      To boil a water molecule, it is necessary to cleave 400 hydrogen bonds with other water molecules.

      The energy required to do this is independent of the specific technology, eg RO, desal, etc.

      Last: fusion to the rescue, eh?

      • TheRadicalModerate

        Reverse- and forward-osmosis don’t rely on boiling the water. They rely on water being able to pass through a membrane that salt and/or pollutants can’t pass through. They certainly require energy (RO to pressurize the system and FO to boil away the solutes used to draw the fresh water) but nothing like that needed to boil the water.

        On the other hand, with an energy source that’s plentiful, dense, and cheap, it just doesn’t matter how efficient boiling is. Hence, you ought to have a Plan A and a Plan B.

        As for “fusion to the rescue”, see above. If you have it, it absolutely rescues you. So it’s worth a smallish investment to see if you can do it.

        • crocodilechuck

          You still don’t get it. See Second Law of Thermodynamics.

          • TheRadicalModerate

            I’m sorry, but I have no idea what you’re talking about.

            Are you trying to say that desalination is hopeless because it consumes a lot of energy? It does, but the total energy consumed varies wildly by technique. Something like multi-stage flash distillation (essentially boiling water at progressively lower pressures) consumes between 13.5 and 25.5 kWh per cubic meter of fresh water, while the energy consumed by reverse-osmosis is between 3 and 5.5 kWh per cubic meter. So clearly you can do better than simply boiling things. Of course, there are other factors involved, e.g. RO membranes are expensive and require a lot more maintenance than MSF does.

            Are you trying to say that desalination is hopeless because there’s some absolute physical minimum energy required to separate water from its various solutes? That’s also true–it’s about 1 kWh per cubic meter. But that would be about $0.07 of energy per cubic meter, which doesn’t sound too bad to me–and the best technology available today has quite a way to go to get close to that theoretical minimum. Hence, the name of the game is to increase scale for the same amount of energy.

            And I have no idea why you think that the 2nd law of thermodynamics has anything to do with the problem, unless you think that we shouldn’t be generating a whole bunch of entropy by boiling water. After all, we’d be accelerating the eventual heat death of the universe…

  • USNK2

    Mr. Mead wonders:
    “…to revitalize China’s water resources is vital to Communist Party leaders’ ability to lead China onward. Are they up to the task?”

    In 1865, faced with a labor shortage in building the Central Pacific railroad west to east, Charles Crocker countered Strobridge’s refusal to manage Chinese workers with the retort that “they built the Great Wall of China, didn’t they?”
    Never underestimate the people of China when it comes to solving and building major infrastructure problems.

    • foobarista

      Building is one thing, but regulating is a lot more complicated. If you could solve pollution by building some giant device, I have little doubt China would build it quickly. What’s lots harder, and where China has a big problem, is regulating tens of thousands of rather small and separately-managed sources of pollution (factories, power stations, etc), typically run by or in partnership with local Party bosses.

      Note that China has pretty much the same anti-pollution regulatory regimes as the US and Europe. It’s enforcement that’s the problem, and enforcement requires getting past age-old problems of corruption and monitoring.

      After living in China, I have more respect than I once did for lawyers and lawsuits in this sort of regulation. Gov’t inspectors are easy to corrupt and can only visit so many places in a day. The local population hiring lawyers to sue polluters is far more effective.

  • Pete

    China is screwed long term.

  • Anthony

    Very troubling if Quick Take is completely accurate in sourcing.

  • BobSykes

    China will not become the world’s dominant power. In fact, its power relative to the US is right now at its maximum and will only decline. Its absolute power will also decline. However, it will likely absorb Taiwan peacefully through some sort of coercion or bribery.

    The first reason is demographic. Because of its one-child policy, China’s population will soon begin to decline, if it hasn’t already down so. This means it will have a population with ever fewer workers and ever more elderly dependents. This pattern is set in stone and cannot be reversed.

    Second, China doesn’t have any resources other than coal and shale gas and minerals. It imports most of its oil over long sea routes that are controlled buy the US and that are easily shut down, especially the routes transiting Indonesia and Malaysia. Most of its land is either desert or has low agricultural productivity because of water shortages. These water shortages are fundamentally due atmospheric circulation caused by basic physics and are not subject to change.

    Third, China’s leadership has squandered much of its wealth, thereby reducing the productivity of its economy. One is reminded of the insane real estate purchases made by the Japanese when they were riding high. They took huge losses, and their economy has been stagnant for a generation. And lurking in the background are the children and grand children of the Gang of Four who want to foment another Cultural Revolution.

    Fourth, the stunning pollution of its environment is irreversible in the short run and will further increase its competitive disadvantages with the US.

    In short, in a generation we will be wondering why we ever fretted about the rise of China.

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