Chinese Desal Policies Reviewed

By Dr. Youzhi Guo 10 November, 2011

China Water Risk talks to Dr Guo on why desalination targets haven't been met and what's in store...

Economic incentives and government policy focus will be key to meeting 12th FYP targets
Advances in technology, cost reduction and management critical to developing desalination in China
Education regarding safety and benefits of desalinated water to public important for wide spread adoption
Dr. Youzhi Guo
Author: Dr. Youzhi Guo
Dr. Guo Youzhi is the Secretary-General of the Desalination Association of China, a 250 member strong association of experts in Desalination and Water Treatment. Dr. Guo is a frequent speaker on desalination policy and membrane technologies at global water events and conferences.
Read more from Dr. Youzhi Guo →

We recommend this interview to be read with our review “Desal in China: Trends & Opportunities” and the opinion from the COO of IDE Technologies, “Desalination: A Technology Driven Market“.


  • Why was 11th FYP desalinization target missed by so much (640,000 m3/d compared to 1,000,000 m3/d target)?

  • Was this a result of technology constraints, insufficient funds, lack of Government support, for example?

Guo: While the Eleventh Five-Year plan for desalination did not meet the expected targets, technical constraints or lack of funds were not the reasons. The biggest problem is the demand for this specific type of water. Each ton of desalinated water requires the consumption of 3 to 4 KWH energy1, currently in-land water resources meet the water needs, and we want to avoid consuming the energy needed for desalination.

The Second issue is government focus, although the government has started to pay attention to the issue, comprehensive policy on water desalination still needs to be developed. The concerned stakeholders are now preparing for the State Department a report: “The Development of the Desalination Industry Guidance”. After the document is formally introduced, it is likely that the Government will develop a series of supporting policies.

Another reason for not achieving the targets is that because of the financial crisis in 2008, many projects have been deferred including water projects.

CWR: Are the future targets, which are still on same growth trajectory (2,000,000 m3/d by 2015, 3,000,000 m3/d by 2020), realistic given difficulties in achieving previous targets?

Guo: It’s difficult to say. Theoretically the desired objectives of the twelve five year plan can be achieved, both economically and technically.  The key issue is whether there is sufficient market demand for desalinated water. Our approach is to use water by order of priority: from groundwater, rivers and lakes, rain water and reused water, etc. We consider groundwater first because of the budget; it is being easier to treat groundwater than river water and lake water.  Eventually, the solution is desalination.

If during the Twelve Five Year Plan and the Thirteen Five Year Plan China faces rapid economic development, encounters severe drought in the northern cities, as well as serious water shortages in coastal cities, then, we believe that not only the development of desalination will be immediate but will go far beyond current targets. At this stage the demand is about 2,000,000 or 3,000,000 m3 / day2.

CWR: What do you think are the main challenges in achieving such targets?

Guo: From my perspective, the implementation of large-scale desalination of sea water is facing several major challenges.

Firstly, planning by the Ministry of Water Resources. To achieve large-scale implementation of desalination, desalinated water has to enter the water pipeline system in order for the general public to utilize it. It also has to be integrated in the overall planning of water resource strategy. These are both the responsibilities of the Ministry of Water Resources. The pipeline system is also the business of the construction sector. The state authorities are coordinating to launch of set of standards for the introduction of desalinated water into the pipeline network. So work is in progress.

Secondly, at present large-scale desalination of sea water faces most of resistance from local officials and the general public. This resistance has two sides. Both local officials and the general public people are unfamiliar with desalinated water. They don’t know whether it is safe and whether it would affect health.

In addition, when there is water available at a low cost, people will not consider higher priced and unfamiliar desalinated water. So the China Desalination Association needs to do address the situation, for example to set up an authoritative water testing standard, and to inform the general public that desalinated water is safe, green , healthy and harmless.

If we manage to convince the general public that desalination is actually safe and green; that it could secure the industrial and domestic supply for water; and that solving water crisis with desalination has now become an international trend widely accepted by national experts, then large scale implementation of desalination would no longer be a problem.

Thirdly, the relationship with desalination and power consumption is an important one.  For investors, the foremost problem is one of economics. Advances in technology and shortage of water resources are always an important issue. We are thus working on a comprehensive utilization of concentrated seawater. We are going to convene a 2012 International Marine Chemical Forum in June next year –Seawater Desalination and Multipurpose Utilization International seminar.  The seminar would discuss the technology of salt production from brine, which is a by-product of desalination. Not only can zero pollution discharge be achieved, but production costs can be reduced. The problem with traditional salt production that requires lots of space for drying can also be managed.  In this way, with the same energy consumption more output value can be achieved.


  • Which government body is responsible for drafting the 12th FYP desalinization commitments?

  • Can you provide some information on policies relating to China’s desalinization commitments and what is the overall aim?

  • Are there any plans for subsidies/fiscal incentives to investment, regulatory provisions, and incentives to attract foreign technology?

Guo: There are several departments that contribute to drafting the desalination component of the five year plans: the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) contributes to development of the desalination industry through providing general guidance; The State Oceanic Administration assists in the development of water usage planning; the Science and Technology Administration provides input on the development of desalination technology and innovation; and the Ministry of Water Resources is undertaking seawater usage research.

After the introduction of the guidance by NDRC a series of supporting policies to encourage industries to stimulate the development of water desalination will be developed,

As we all know, the price of water is ultimately linked to social welfare, thus water prices are relatively low. The government has a policy both to raise water prices and provide subsidies, but for desalinated water as yet there isn’t such policy.  Considering the worsening situation of water scarcity and as desalinated water is a solution, I believe that desalination will surely receive government support, but it must be able to compete with the price of traditional water.


  • How does desalinization fit into the broader discussions about water pricing?

  • There is a view that the price of water needs to rise generally and this will bring it closer to the price of desal. Water as technology improves and that brings desal. water prices down. What are the policies etc. intended to make that happen?

  • How likely is a situation where desal water is not so expensive?

Guo: Let me first say that the current price for desalination is not so expensive, desalinated water is currently around 5-6 RMB per m3, which compares favorably with the industrial water price, take Tianjin for example at 7 RMB per m3.

The development of desalination in China must rely on advances in technology, cost reduction and improvement in operation and management. There is a difference between desalination and conventional water sources [costs]; and the Water Resources Ministry should address the price differential (as noted above).

As increased desalination is the ultimate solution, the government should subsidize desalinated water so that it can develop rapidly. With the upgrading of technology, the production cost should be reduced.


  • Critics say that desalinization is exploitation of another natural resource when we should be fixing how we exploit existing natural water resources. Does this resonate at all with the Government?

  • Has that affected development of the sector at all?

Guo: It is undeniable that a majority of the industrial and agricultural users have potential for water saving.

Improving technology is the main area to focus on. We know that agriculture and industrial water efficiency is poor due to inadequate technology and that in developed countries more efficient technology is used; hence we can see a technology gap. In China, water conservation and water reuse is being addressed step by step.

To present desalination as an excessive usage of natural resources is in my view incorrect. The utilization of any natural resources will have certain impacts on the ecosystem, underground water; rivers and lakes are no exception. The Association is currently participating in a major subject research “Seawater utilization status, problem and development strategy research” which will involve ecological assessment.

Currently we use either ground or surface water whichever one is needed and neither is energy intensive. Desalination is the last solution when no other alternatives are possible. Lack of fresh water will lead to drought, slow economic growth and the population wil inevitably be affected in daily life. Lack of freshwater causes significant damage to the environment: we can’t can imagine a situation without water. Therefore desalinating sea water should be considered as a solution to the water crisis which doesn’t overuse natural resources nor destroy the environment, it is sustainable and can help restore the ecosystem.



  • We understand that there may be lack of political/government support for pipelines that transports desal. water from east to west. Is that correct? What are the principal concerns?

  • Is it the issue of transporting water from east to west and in land generally, that is holding up growth of desal. on the coast?

Guo: China is a large country of 1.3 billion people. Although the country has significant ​​precipitation there are water imbalances, and water has been diverted for thousands of years to address this issue. In the 21st century, proposals for long-distance water transfer have raised a lot of concerns.

Long-distance water transfer are large scale projects which can have significant construction impacts on the surrounding ecosystem, affecting the lives of local communities, inundating farmland to construct reservoirs and creating geological hazards.

With the effect of global warming, rivers water levels are dropping, many locations will face drought and with river water levels being uneven, the overall water diversion project performance will decline.  Authorities will then face an embarrassing situation.

From an economic, social stability and ecological perspective, long-distance water transfer has been increasingly questioned. Many people advocate the use of desalination water as an alternative to transferring water. When a city served by diverted water is close to the sea, ​​the city can consider either way to solve its water problems i.e. desalination or water diversion, as two complementary solutions. After all, using seawater resources to provide urban water is a good solution as desalinated water is environmental friendly, affordable, scientific and on the top of all is sustainable.

1 As a comparison, the UK water industry uses 0,63 kWh to treat 1 m3 of sewage and 0,59 kWh to treat 1m3 of water ( source: Water and Energy Nexus,Gustaf Olsson Lund University, Sweden, data accessed in Feb. 2010).
2 For reference, according to the China Statistical Yearbook (2010) in 2009 China was consuming an average of 1,610 million m3 per day.