China’s Water Stress Is On The Rise

By Dr. Jiao Wang, Dr. Lijin Zhong, Charles Iceland 16 March, 2017

WRI on China's latest water status - the good & the bad

Water stress across 54% of China worsened in 2001-2010; 678mn people live in highly water-stressed areas
Rising water stress mainly due to urbanisation & industrialisation; local govts taking action e.g Shandong
Agri water use fell 3% due to water-efficient farming; China needs the right policies & management practices

This article first appeared on the World Resources Institute website here.

Water stress levels in many parts of China are very high, due to low levels of water supply and very high levels of demand. And new research shows the situation is worsening.

The land area in China facing high & extremely high water stress increased from 28 to 30%…
… meaning 678mn people live in highly water-stressed areas

Yellow River (6)

Using the baseline water stress metric developed for WRI’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, we compared water stress in China between 2001 and 2010, the latest year for which catchment data are available. This analysis paints a much more accurate picture than previous analyses, using detailed freshwater withdrawal data from more than 300 prefectures and high spatial resolution grid data. We found that the percentage of land area in China facing high and extremely high water stress increased from 28 to 30 percent, meaning 678 million people now live in highly water-stressed areas.
Baseline_Water_Stress_in_China (2)

“… water stress across 54% of China’s total land area worsened from 2001 to 2010…”

Water stress is defined as the total annual water withdrawals (municipal, industrial and agricultural) as a percent of the total annual available surface water. High values indicate more competition among users—a value above 40 percent is considered as “high water stress,” and above 80 percent as “extremely high.” Overall, water stress across 54 percent of China’s total land area worsened from 2001 to 2010, while 8 percent of the country’s total land area, an area slightly larger than the U.S. state of Texas, moved into a higher category of water stress.
Increasing_Water_Stress_in_China (2)

What’s Driving Increased Water Stress?

There are several reasons behind the worsened water stress situation for these catchments, but industrialisation and urbanisation are two of the biggest. Industrial water withdrawals increased in all provincial divisions except Beijing. For example, one catchment in the Yellow River Basin—where water stress increased by 55 percent—is near one of the country’s national coal bases. Extraction and refining of coal is a very water-intensive process.

Industrialisation & urbanisation are two of the biggest reasons behind the worsened water stress situation…
… some local govts have promoted more water-efficient industrial practices e.g. Shandong

In the Pearl River Delta, one of the major economic zones in China on the southeastern coast, industrial GDP increased 4.8 times, while urban population grew by 56 percent from 2000 to 2010. In Guizhou Province in the southwest, industry grew significantly while the urban population increased by 22 percent from 2001 to 2010.
Some local governments have taken action to promote more water-efficient industrial practices. For example, since 2006, Shandong province has shut down inefficient paper-making and steel factories, and as a result, industrial water withdrawal per unit of output dropped by 12.49 percent between 2001 and 2008. Other Chinese provinces should consider similar approaches in order to rein in industrial thirst and more efficiently utilize existing water resources.
Most areas in China also experienced an increase in domestic withdrawals, mainly due to population growth and improved standards of living. In catchments with increased domestic water withdrawal, more than 80 percent saw an increase in domestic water withdrawal per capita. With income growth, more families can afford household appliances like dishwashers and washing machines, and live a higher-consumption lifestyle. For example, the number of washing machines per 100 households increased from 90.5 to 96.92 during the 10-year period studied. The number of shower water heaters per 100 households increased from 49.10 to 84.82.
While some catchments saw decreased domestic water withdrawal, this is because they’re located in areas so arid and dry that people have been forced to move to other locations. For example, a catchment in Inner Mongolia had a population of 4,730 in the year 2000 and a population of zero in the year 2010.

A Bright Spot in China’s Water Story

While industrial and domestic water withdrawals increased overall, agricultural water use decreased in most areas. Total irrigation water withdrawal in 2010 decreased by 3 percent compared to 2001, which is quite significant given that the effective irrigation area increased by 11 percent during the same time.

Agricultural water use decreased in most areas due to policy prescriptions & water-efficient farming

The drivers of the decrease included both policy prescriptions and deployment of water-efficient farming equipment. In China’s Five-Year Plan for 2006-2010, the government set a goal of stabilizing irrigation water use by 2010.  Land areas equipped with water-saving irrigation technologies increased by 40 percent from 2003 to 2010.

Chinas_Water_Withdrawl (2)

Moving Toward a Water-Secure Future

Worsening water stress is already a cause for concern in China, and the threat is growing. Water stress in Ningxia Province, for example, is projected to increase by 40-70 percent by 2040 due to climate change’s effect on available surface water and the influence of socioeconomic factors.

“China may be facing mounting water threats, but it can start reversing course with the right policies & management practices”

China has already seen how strong water policies can lead to a decrease in water stress in the agricultural sector. Depending on each catchment’s unique water use and water stress situation, government and corporate policies can support more efficient and sustainable water use by: encouraging cultivation of less water-intensive crops; improving water-use efficiency in water-intensive industries like coal mining and electric power production; and promoting more water-conserving lifestyles amongst consumers.
China may be facing mounting water threats, but it can start reversing course with the right policies and management practices.

Further Readin

  • Blue Skies & 13FYP Green Development – Air pollution and the battle on “blue skies” was by far the major environmental focus at China’s Two Sessions. Water and soil are no less important but yet softer and more general targets were set for them. See China Water Risk Hongqiao Liu’s review for the key takeaways
  • Key Water Policies 2016 – 2017 – Missed out on the key water and water-related policies in China over the last year? Get up to speed with China Water Risk Dawn McGregor’s review, including the latest on the water law
  • Cost-Effective Carbon Reduction In Wastewater Treatment – The wastewater industry consumes a lot of energy. Xylem’s Lu Shuping shows how its rapid expansion makes it ripe for attractive energy savings opportunities, especially in China
  • China Leads The G20 On Climate Change – In 2015, the world economy decarbonised at a record 2.8%. China led with the biggest reduction of 6.4%. PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Robert Milnes on how this is tracked in their Low Carbon Economy Index
  • MyH2O – Test Your Water – To improve transparency, Charlene Ren set-up MyH2O, one of China’s first online crowdsourcing networks on drinking water quality. We sat down with Ren to learn more about their testing, interactive mapping platform and what’s next
  • BWS-China: WRI’s New Water Stress Map – With more granular data from the Chinese government, WRI China upgraded its Aqueduct  Baseline Water Stress (BWS) maps for China. BWS China developers Wang, Zhong & Long explain key differences
  • Does Coal Always Mean Water Stress Along With Economic Growth? – WRI’s Fu, Zhong & Wang investigates how Ningxia manages its water resources to develop coal. See what strategies can be adopted to minimise water stress whilst allowing economic growth
  • 5 Regulatory Trends: From Enforcement To Finance – Since 2016, China’s environmental policy landscape has undergone a series of important changes. CWR’s Xu summarises key regulations & 5 trends you need to know, from greater enforcement to green finance
  • China’s Water Resource Tax Reform – The recently launched water resource tax reform will ultimately supersede the existing resource fee system. China Water Risk’s Yuanchao Xu on how the two systems compare and why Hebei is taking lead as the pilot city
  • 8 Reasons to Invest in Irrigation in China – To grow 75% of total grains & 90% cash crops, China’s irrigated areas need water equivalent to the Pearl River flow. With an additional 18 million hectares to adopt water-saving tech by 2030, CWR’s Hu says investment in irrigation is worth exploring
Dr. Jiao Wang
Author: Dr. Jiao Wang
Dr. Jiao Wang is a Research Associate with WRI’s China Water Team, where she works with the Global Aqueduct Team and external partners to establish in-house hydrological modeling capacity and develop China water atlas by applying the WRI Aqueduct Global Water Risks Framework. Jiao previously worked as a junior researcher at University of Hawaii at Manoa. She has more than 10 years’ experience in environmental modeling using remote sensing and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) techniques. She has worked on various projects including evapotranspiration estimation, domestic water use distribution, precipitation down-scaling, land cover and land use change, as well as vegetation phenology monitoring. Jiao holds a PhD in Geographic Information Science from Texas State University, USA. Her PhD work focused on scaling effects of remotely sensed evapotranspiration. She has a MS in GIS from Chinese Academy of Sciences and a BS from Northwest University, China. Jiao lives in Beijing. She is an avid hiker. Her other passions include pottery, karate, and volunteering with local NGOs.
Read more from Dr. Jiao Wang →
Dr. Lijin Zhong
Author: Dr. Lijin Zhong
Dr. Lijin Zhong as Senior Associate leading the water team in WRI’s China office. Prior to coming to WRI, Dr. Lijin Zhong served as the Deputy Director of the Tsinghua University Water Policy Research Center in the Department of Environmental Science and Engineering. She has nine years of experiences in the fields of environmental engineering, environmental planning and management, environmental impact assessment, and environmental policy and institutional reform. During that time she focused on the water sector and provided environmental policy consulting services to various Chinese ministries including the Ministries of Construction and Environmental Protection, the National Development and Reform Commission, and international organizations such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. With this expertise and experience, she is intimately familiar with China’s water policies and institutional systems. Dr. Lijin Zhong has B.S. and M.S. degrees in environmental engineering from Tsinghua University and a Ph.D. in environmental policy from Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
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Charles Iceland
Author: Charles Iceland
Charles Iceland is Aqueduct Director with WRI’s Food, Forests, and Water Programs. Aqueduct is the most current, comprehensive, and high-resolution global water risk assessment and mapping tool available. Charles oversees Aqueduct’s strategy development and management, and is currently working to develop an Aqueduct Global Flood Risk Analyzer with a number of Dutch research partners. Charles previously partnered with several major multinational corporations, including Mondi Group, Rio Tinto, Akzo Nobel, and BC Hydro, to develop, road test, and apply an innovative methodology for assessing corporate risks and opportunities stemming from ecosystem change. Prior to that, he worked at the World Environment Center, where he developed innovative supply chain environmental management pilot programs for Alcoa, Johnson & Johnson, Dow Chemical, and General Motors. He has also worked at the Office of the United States Trade Representative, the United States House of Representatives, and the Peterson Institute for International Economics. In addition, he worked in the banking and finance sector for several years and is a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA).
Read more from Charles Iceland →