Groundwater Shortage Calls For Urgent Action

By Kris Hartley, Asit Biswas 13 July, 2017

With China's groundwater already over-extracted, Biswas & Hartley consider solutions, from pricing to sponge cities

Beijing's non-capital functions are moving to Xiongan New Area amidst groundwater over-extraction & subsidence
With water tariffs at <1/2 of those in the developed world, China needs a more aggressive volumetric pricing strategy
Both China’s econ & environ sustainability are at stake

China’s decision to relocate Beijing’s non-capital functions to Xiongan New Area, which is home to Baiyangdian Lake, the largest freshwater body in North China, highlights the acute water shortage Beijing faces. This calls for special attention to the groundwater shortage.

The overstressed North China aquifer serves 11% of China’s population, 13% of its agri production, & 70% of its coal production

China has 20 percent of the world’s population but less than 6 percent of the groundwater. The overstressed North China aquifer serves 11 percent of the country’s population, 13 percent of its agricultural production, and 70 percent of its coal production. The measures to solve China’s water problems have so far been inadequate. The massive South-North Water Transfer Project has supplied Beijing with 2 billion cubic meters of Yangtze River water a year since 2014, but is not a long-term solution, say some Chinese scientists.

The S-N Water Transfer project & desalination are solutions but there are challenges

Desalination could be another solution. In coastal areas near Beijing, restrictions on extraction of groundwater for industrial use have been imposed to force desalination into the supply portfolio, but desalinated water has not been incorporated systematically into the municipal water systems. The resultant dependence on and over-extraction of groundwater are having severe impacts on Beijing, including subsidence. Long Di, a researcher at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Hydrology and Water Resources, says: “Subsidence is a slow but progressive disaster, and it is irreversible. It can cause cracks in walls, roads, bridges, and underground municipal infrastructure.
The problem is particularly acute in Chaoyang district, which borders Beijing’s eastern suburbs-areas that are rapidly expanding with dense, high-rise buildings. In San Francisco, California, the case of a new luxury 57-floor building leaning several degrees only years after construction, due to poor foundation standards, illustrates the legal, financial and social challenges of building in areas with geo-technical instability. What makes the problem more challenging is that many buildings in Beijing’s rapidly subsiding districts are far taller.
Water conservation is dependent as much on individual decisions as on national policymaking. One example is California’s 2015 water shortage. California Governor Jerry Brown called for a statewide reduction in water usage of 25 percent in July 2015, and the state exceeded expectations by reducing usage of 31 percent. Much of this reduction came from changes in personal habits; fewer people watered their lawns and washed cars. California also encouraged municipalities to actively manage demand, and many imposed surcharges on individual users who exceeded stipulated limits. Indeed, academic studies have shown pricing to be a powerful water demand management tool.

China’s implicit subsidisation of water serves little purpose, least of all in driving conservation & innovation

China’s demand profile for water does not closely resemble California’s; both markets have high usage for agriculture (64 percent in China and 80 percent in California), but China’s manufacturing activity as a share of economic output is larger than California’s.
China must adopt a more aggressive volumetric pricing programme, however, to manage demand, particularly for industrial users. On a per cubic meter basis, water tariffs on businesses and individuals are less than 12 percent those in Denmark and less than half of those in the developed world. China’s implicit subsidisation of water serves little purpose, least of all in prompting conservation and innovation.

China has made some efforts to address these challenges…

…but there appears to be a tepid appetite for private investment

China has made some efforts to address these challenges. The sponge-cities programme, a modified version of low-impact development that focuses on permeable surfaces and water infrastructure, seeks to increase groundwater absorption. The central government has set a target for 80 percent of Chinese cities to meet sponge-city standards by 2030. This is a crucial step in aggressively addressing groundwater depletion in urban areas, including Beijing.
However, there appears to be a tepid appetite for private investment in these projects. More aggressive inducements are needed to prompt public-private partnerships for sponge-city development.

Both China’s economic and environmental sustainability are at stake

Addressing the groundwater depletion problem-and in broader measure the growing crisis of water scarcity amid rapid urbanisation-will require a multi-pronged approach that includes unequivocal political will, transparency regarding the impacts and costs of depletion, creative policy initiatives to manage demand, and support for technical innovations to improve usage efficiency. Both China’s economic and environmental sustainability are at stake.

Further Reading

  • ‘Science Unusual’ to Counter Fake News! – Science & policy have their own language but given significant climate risk overshadowed by fake news, can we afford to speak in tongues? Hu & Tan on why it’s time to step up efforts to bridge science and policy with finance
  • Green Financing For Climate Resilience – We sat down with Dr Christine Chan from the Climate Bonds Initiative working group to get the latest on green finance globally & in China. How have China’s green bonds been received? What is next for investors?
  • Hong Kong: A Climate Resilient Sponge City – Hong Kong is prone to tropical cyclones, which will be exacerbated by climate change. Can the city become climate & flood resilient? Hear from Richard Leung from the Drainage Services Department on actions taken so far
  • Hong Kong’s Pricey Water Deal With China – Much is made of the DongShen Agreement’s price tag but discussions need to move onto more complex issues such as the city’s rampant overuse & leakage. Hear from Civic Exchange on HK’s ‘illusion of plenty’
  • Groundwater Under Pressure – New official survey says that China’s groundwater quality has yet again deteriorated. Can the ‘Water Ten Plan’ turn this around? Who will be affected? Hear from China Water Risk’s Hu on what’s at stake & why the next 5 years are crucial
  • Sponge Cities: An Answer To Floods – Floods have cost China close to RMB2 trillion between 2000-2014. Today, with 641 cities in China are prone to flood risk, the government has turned to sponge city pilots. Do they work? How much do they cost? China Water Risk’s Xu reviews
  • 2016 State of Environment Report Review – The signs are positive for China’s environment in 2016. Groundwater quality improved after 5 years of decline though there is mixed news for rivers & lakes. Is the tide turning in China’s ‘war on pollution’?
  • Corporate Leadership For Depleting Aquifers – Earth Security Group’s CEO brief warns that depletion of aquifers is creating systemic business risks and geopolitical challenges. See why authors Litovsky & Hill Clarvis think these are risks so great that countries & MNCs must come together to collaborate on solutions
Kris Hartley
Author: Kris Hartley
Kris Hartley is a Singapore-based researcher and consultant focusing on economic development, public policy, and urbanization. With a decade of public and private sector experience, he has consulted on a variety of topics including earthquake recovery, financial regulation, infrastructure asset management, and nuclear energy policy. Working on solutions with high economic and social impact, Kris is currently conducting research about urban revitalization and cultural preservation in Singapore, provincial governance and economic competitiveness in Vietnam, and water resource management in the Hong Kong region. Kris is also a Ph.D. candidate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, where he holds the President’s Graduate Fellowship. His education includes a Master of City Planning in Economic Development from the University of California, Berkeley, an MBA with a focus in International Management from Baylor University, and a BA in Classics from the University of Tennessee.
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Asit Biswas
Author: Asit Biswas
Professor Biswas is a leading authority on water, environment and development-related issues. He has been an advisor and confidant to Presidents, PMs and Ministers of 19 countries, six Heads of UN Agencies, two Secretary-Generals of OECD and several heads of IGOs and MNCs. He was also Director of Canada’s Department of the Environment. Asit co-founded the International Water Resources Association (IWRA), the World Water Council and the Third World Centre for Water Management and currently sits on the International Advisory Board of Pictet Asset Management and the Indian Institute of Technology and is Strategic Advisor to Singapore International Water Week as well as Distinguished Visiting Professor to the University of Glasgow. Asit is a distinguished Academician. With 950+ publications, his h-index of 44 makes him an ‘outstanding scientist’ and a Research Gate score of 41.89, puts him into the top 2.5% of all scientists across all disciplines globally. He founded the International Journal of Water Resources Development and is the author or editor of 88 books; his works have been translated into 41 languages. He has also seven Honorary Doctorates plus numerous prestigious global environment and water awards, ranging from the Aragon Environment Prize to the Stockholm Water Prize; Canada even named him Person of the Year in 1996.
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