Managing China’s Water Stress Drop By Drop

By Dr. Jiao Wang 14 June, 2018

WRI’s Dr Wang on gains from better water management

Bad news is no change in water stress pattern; population in high/extremely high water stress rose 3% in 2010-2015
Good news is worsening water stress is slowing down; more areas improving & declining stress in Central China
With overall improvements, Three Red Line regulations, local govt policies & incentives seem to have an effect

This article was first appeared on the World Resource Institute website on 26 April 2018. Click here to see the original publication.

Yellow River, China
With more than one-third of its land area facing high or extremely high water stress, China is working hard to match growing demands for freshwater with the available renewable supply. The government is well aware of the threats that water stress can pose—economic stagnation, the demise of water-dependent industries, and conflicts over resources.
In 2012, the Chinese State Council issued an administrative guidance document, “Opinions of the State Council on Applying the Strictest Water Resources Control System,” to address growing water challenges. The document, commonly referred to as the “Three Red Lines,” requires stricter management of water resources in three ways: by capping annual water usage at 700 billion cubic metres for the overall economy by 2030, increasing irrigation efficiency, and protecting water quality. Following the central government’s step, sub-national governments have set up their own more detailed goals.

The rate of increase in China’s water withdrawals has significantly slowed…
…but local circumstances differ

Have these “Three Red Lines” improved China’s water security? WRI used data on water withdrawal for three years (2001, 2010 and 2015) to determine changes in water consumption over time. The rate of increase in China’s water withdrawals has significantly slowed, from 5.1 billion cubic metres per year in 2001-2010, to 1.6 billion cubic metres per year from 2010-2015. But local circumstances differ from the overall picture: certain geographies in China are still experiencing rapidly increasing stress.

Tracking water stress in China

WRI experts mapped and analysed China’s Baseline Water Stress for 2015 to identify trends, worsening conditions and improvements. Baseline 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.”
Water Stress2
This analysis uses WRI’s Aqueduct methodology and the NASA GLDAS global hydrologic model to assess long-term averages for renewable surface water supply, and detailed sectoral water demand data reported by the Chinese government. As is true for many countries, there is no independent verification of these self-reported demand figures. We are, therefore, relying on the accuracy of the government-reported data without the ability to check them against other sources. Based on these data and the related analyses, we observed a number of trends:

The bad news

  • The overall pattern of water stress has remained consistent from 2001 to 2015. Northern China experiences more stress than Southern China. Compared to 2010, the total area of China experiencing high and extremely high water stress did not change in 2015, as the “Three Red Lines” policy took effect.
  • The population living in high or extremely high water stress areas increased by 3 percent from 2010-2015. Compared to 2001-2010, areas at the upstream reaches of the Yellow River and Yangtze River both had less water stress, while areas at the downstream reaches of the Yellow River had worse water stress, as people began to move downstream.

The good news

Although water stress in China worsened from 2001 to 2010, driven largely by increased water demand across sectors, water stress maps of 2015 show that the situation appears to be improving in many areas:

  • Worsening water stress is slowing down. In a recent five-year period (2010-2015), the growth in areas experiencing higher water stress slowed; the total area with worsened water stress from 2010-2015 was only 35 percent of the previous ten-year period (2001-2010).
  • More areas are improving. The number of areas experiencing a decrease in water stress from 2010-2015 was 9 times greater compared to the 2001-2010 time period.
  • Stress declining in Central China. As evidenced by the maps above, there are broad disparities within and between China’s various provinces. Water stress increased in central China’s provinces from 2001-2010, keeping pace with rapid regional economic growth over this same period. Since 2010, water stress levels have begun to decline in some catchments as sectoral reductions in water withdrawals have taken place.

Water Stress Change

Industrial water withdrawals in Panzhihua decreased by 31% in 2010-2015…

…it seems that the Three Red Line regulations & local govt policies & incentives are having an effect

These positive developments can be seen at the local level. For example, industrial water withdrawals in Panzhihua, in the Sichuan Province in southwest China, decreased by 31 percent in 2015 compared to 2010. This change was driven by incentives put in place by the Panzhihua Municipal Government, which aimed to decrease the water use per unit of industrial value added by 30 percent in 2015 compared to 2010.
In Panzhihua, 37 industrial companies were enrolled in Sichuan’s “Hundred Companies Water Saving Working Plan” issued in 2013, which targets a total of 546 companies in the province whose water withdrawal exceeds 300,000 cubic metres per year and accounts for nearly 70 percent of total industrial water withdrawal in Sichuan. The Working Plan’s focus is to “control the increment, adjust the existing, phase out the outdated” to increase water efficiency. In 2013, water withdrawal from these 37 companies decreased by 22 percent compared to previous year, with a 85.40 percent reuse rate. It seems that the Three Red Line regulations and local government policies and incentives are having an effect.

Hope for Three Red Lines

These analyses clearly suggest that China has begun to see the positive impacts of stricter management of water resources. Although there are differences across regions—with some experiencing worsened stress—the average overall situation has improved since issuance of the “Three Red Lines” policy, including at the sectoral level.
Since the analysis is based on only two data points (2010 and 2015), it is not clear if this is a trend or just a blip in the data. If this trend bears out over time, it will demonstrate that even relatively water-stressed countries with booming economies can improve their situations through meaningful public policies and well-aligned incentives.

Further Reading

  • 2017 State Of Ecology & Environment Report Review – Prioritising rivers appears to have paid off but overall groundwater and Key Lakes & Reservoirs both worsened. Are we now seeing the “real” state of China’s environment? Find out in China Water Risk’s review of the 2017 State Of Ecology & Environment Report
  • New Tech & Policy For Climate Resilience: 3 Takeaways – Experts say new tech needs policy support at an interdisciplinary forum for climate resilient urban water systems, hosted by the Centre for Water Technology & Policy of the University of Hong Kong. Check out three key takeaways from China Water Risk’s Chien Tat Low and Woody Chan
  • Reactive Dye Revolution – Innovative tech is popping up as Huntsman’s Holger Schlaefke expands on how their new reactive dye saves costs and water plus cut carbon emissions without additional CAPEX
  • How Green Is Your Beer? – From Tsingtao to Carl​sberg, just how green is your favourite beer? Hear from IPE’s Na Wang on findings from their recent environmental impact analysis on China’s beer supply chain
  • Introducing The Better Buying Index – Suppliers can now rank buyers’ purchasing practices with the unique Better Buying Purchasing Practices Index. Explore the index and its first benchmark report with their co-founder Dr Marsha Dickson
  • China’s Water Stress Is On The Rise – Water stress across 54% of China worsened in 2001-2010. The World Resources Institute’s Dr Jiao Wang, Dr Lijin Zhong & Charles Iceland deliver the good and the bad news of China’s latest water stress data
  • 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
  • 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
  • 5 Trends For 2018: The Year Of The Dog – We could be heading for dog days this year and China is getting ready with economic planning that considers water and climate. Check out our 5 trends and stay ahead of the pack
  • Key Water Policies 2017 – 2018 – Missed out on key water and water-related policies in China this past year? Catch up with China Water Risk Woody Chan’s review, including the latest on the new Water Ten Law and environmental tax law
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.
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