China is on the verge of a water disaster. The country consumes 10 billion barrels of water a day, and decades of economic growth and a population explosion have pushed groundwater in northern China to an alarmingly low state. China’s water crisis is getting so bad that it could cause a global disaster in the near future.
Foreign Affairs said that, given China’s enormous importance to the global economy, the potential disruptions to water that emanate from China will quickly take effect in food, energy, and raw materials markets around the world, and create economic and political instability for years to come.
China is ‘thirsty’ for water
According to the Foreign Affairs article, the 253 cubic meter per capita water supply around the North China Plain (including the three provinces of Henan, Hebei, Shandong) at the end of 2020 was nearly 50% lower than the standard definition of acute water scarcity by the United Nations.
Other major cities including Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin are also at similar (or lower) lows.
For comparison, as of 2019 Egypt had a per capita fresh water supply of 570 cubic meters, and it does not have to support the large manufacturing base that China does.
Water pollution has become so widespread that it has become “normal” in China. As of 2018 urban and industrial waste makes about 19% of the water unfit for human consumption and 7% unfit for anything at all.
Groundwater is even worse, with about 30% deemed unfit for consumption, and 16% unfit for any use. Ground water is critical as it guarantees water supplies during drought.
To regenerate this water, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will need to invest heavily in treatment infrastructure, which will require a significant increase in electricity usage.
Meanwhile, China’s ‘hot’ development of agriculture and industry has released countless pollutants into the groundwater over the past three decades.
Data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations shows that China uses nearly 2.5 times more fertilizers and four times more pesticides than the U.S., despite having 25% less arable land.
For decades, the CCP has often chosen to hide the country’s environmental problems as a whole, to avoid a global public opinion backlash, as well as to avoid damage to its leadership.
This lack of transparency, coupled with recently exposed water depletion, may actually be much more serious than what outside observers realize.
And obviously this has affected other countries, and it is likely that the world will not be prepared in time for such a disaster to occur.
For three decades, water has been a vital condition for economic development, helping China to become a world power. And now, that same economic growth has pushed China into a water crisis.
Water is polluted everywhere in China, with the north facing increasing dryness and an increasing demand for water, especially in big cities.
Groundwater may be depleted in the next 20-30 years
According to NASA’s GRACE satellite, the aquifers (the areas that hold groundwater) under the delta in northern China have already been depleted, compared with the aquifers on the American plains, which are also being depleted.
Other countries such as India, Mexico, and the United States have aquifers that are currently being over-exploited, causing water levels to decline to very low levels. It is not as severe as on the North China Plain. Levels there are at alarmingly dangerous levels, and may be depleted within the next 20 to 30 years.
In some cases, groundwater levels have dropped so low that aquifers have collapsed – causing land subsidence, or a gradual sinking of landforms to lower levels, leaving the ground open. This explains why China is home to the most sinkholes in the world.
The CCP has a serious problems when it comes to Beijing.The city will become a giant sink hole because authorities are using up the city’s groundwater. Spanish engineer Roberto Tomas was part of a study evaluating the impact of subsidence on Beijing’s subway system. The study from 2016 found that Beijing is sinking as much as 11 cm or 4 inches per year. The main cause is the overexploitation of groundwater.
In 2003, the CCP launched the $60 billion “South-North Water Transport Project” to divert water from the Yangtze River to replenish the northern delta.
However, it is a grim reality that, in addition to the marked decline in groundwater quality, wastewater, often untreated, is discharged directly into the Yangtze River. It is estimated that about 41% of China’s wastewater flows into the Yangtze River.
So China is facing a dilemma: Demand for water is increasing in the north while water quality in the south is declining.
China has deployed cloud seeding technology to stimulate rainfall. Beijing also relocated heavy industries out of arid regions.
In April 2022, Vice Minister of Water Resources Wei Shanzhong estimated that China could spend up to $100 billion annually on water-related projects.
Water crisis in China could cause global disaster
Foreign Affairs reported that, despite innovative programs to improve water availability, some scholars estimate that water supplies could fall short of demand by 25 percent by 2030 – a situation that by definition, according to Foreign Affairs, will force major adjustments in society.
Despite nearly a decade of importing water supplies from the Yangtze valley to high-stress areas like Beijing, large-scale depletion of stored groundwater continues in neighboring areas, such as Hebei and Tianjin.
Of course, when water resources in plains like the North China Delta are depleted, the drought will be worse, which means less food production.
Note that 60% of China’s wheat, 45% corn, 35% cotton and 64% peanuts all come from the North China Plain.
It grows wheat with an annual output of more than 80 million tons (on par with Russia’s annual production), and corn production of 125 million tons (three times the production of Ukraine before the war).
To maintain this production, local authorities are pumping water to fields and farms faster than natural water can replenish.
According to satellite data, between 2003 and 2010, northern China lost as much groundwater as Beijing consumes annually, making it difficult for farmers to find new sources of water.
If the North China Plain suffered a 33% crop failure due to water shortages, China would need to import about 20% of the world’s corn and 13% of the world’s wheat.
Foreign Affairs said that, although China has accumulated the largest grain reserves in the world, it is not immune to yield shortages in multiple years. “This will likely force China’s food traders, including large state-owned enterprises such as COFCO and Sinograin, to access global markets to secure additional supplies. This could cause food prices to skyrocket in high-income countries, while also making hundreds of millions of people in poor countries unable to afford the prices.”
the article went on to say, “The impact of China’s water-induced food shortages could be far worse than the food-related unrest that swept through low- and middle-income countries in 2007 and 2008, at the same time will promote migration and exacerbate the political polarization already occurring in Europe and the United States.”
With around 90% of the country’s electricity grid dependent on abundant water, China’s water disaster is no longer limited to the agricultural sector. Hydroelectricity, coal, and nuclear reactors, which require a large and steady supply of water for condensers and to cool reactor cores and are used in smelting nuclear fuel rods could be drastically affected.
If China loses 15% of its hydroelectricity due to low water levels, Beijing will have to increase electricity production through other methods, where only coal can meet the demand.
However, the process of mining and processing coal also uses a lot of water. And while seawater can be used to cool the limited coal resources in coastal production facilities, much of the peat source is inland and depends on groundwater, rivers, and lakes.
These are freshwater sources again and so a vicious cycle continues, leading to more and more depleted water resources.
China’s power shortage will also have a direct impact on the global supply chain, as industrial facilities account for more than 65% of electricity use in China. To mitigate the direct human impact of widespread, uncontrolled power outages, party officials will likely have to close industrial facilities to reduce the load on the grid — as they did during power shortages in 2021.
Former British diplomat and China expert Charlie Parton noted in 2018, “China can print money, but not water.” As China continues to over-exploit groundwater in the face of increasingly volatile weather, the country moves closer each year to a catastrophic water event and must take drastic steps while there is still time.