Groundwater Under Pressure

By Feng Hu 14 May, 2015

Water Ten Plan sets strict groundwater targets. Hu on why the next 5 years are key to stabalize current dire situation

'bad' & 'very badly' polluted groundwater increased from 2011-2014 from 14.7% to 16.1%; by 2020 target: 15%
'Water Ten Plan' targets coal & agri to protect groundwater; expect changes with new sector targets
Groundwater depletion in dire state; watersheds, North China Plain & cities all at risk; expect more action from govt

Over 400 of the 655 Chinese cities or about 70% of the population rely on groundwater as their primary drinking water resource. Geographically, the North is more reliant on groundwater than the South; while the North has 47% of China’s sown area and 86% of coal reserves. Therefore, China needs to protect her groundwater resources to ensure food security and energy security. The new ‘Water Pollution Prevention & Control Action Plan’ (also known as the “Water Ten Plan”) set out targets to strictly control groundwater extraction and groundwater pollution by 2020. The next five years will be key to change the current worrying situation of groundwater.

Pollution exacerbates scarcity: Deterioration of groundwater quality continues…

Groundwater Quality 2011-2014 & 2020 TargetChina’s groundwater has deteriorated during 2011 to 2013 (read more). The Ministry of Land Resources’ latest statistics in 2014 China Land and Resources Annual Report issued on 22 April 2015, shows that this ‘deterioration’ trend is continuing:

  • Groundwater in the ‘very bad’ category in 2014 increased to 16.1% from 15.7% in 2013; and
  • Groundwater in “bad” & “very bad” increased from 59.6% in 2013 to 61.5% in 2014.

This might be due to the increased monitoring points from 4,778 in 2013 to 4,896 in 2014, which exposed serious pollution that has existed for long time. If so, what about those areas that are still not monitored?

Reversing polluted ground water will be an uphill battle…
…Controlling water in coal & agri key

According the Water Ten Plan, “very badly” polluted groundwater should be reduced to 15% by 2020. Given the current downward trend, reversing this will be an uphill battle. Coal and agricultural water use & pollution must be controlled.


Coal mining and agriculture targeted to protect groundwater

To protect groundwater, as highlighted in the Water Ten Plan, two sectors are being targeted:
1)     Coal mining seriously impacts groundwater reserves as 95% of China’s coal is mined underground ; and
2)     Agriculture is heavily reliant on groundwater for irrigation in some top farming provinces.

~Half of sown land lies in the same 12 provinces as coal bases

Moreover, many of China’s major coal production provinces are also top agriculture producers. Almost half of China’s sown land lies in the same 12 provinces as China’s coal bases, which is expected to account for 95% of China’s coal output by 2020 (read more). Three of them, specifically Henan, Shandong and Hebei, are also extremely water-scarce.

Coal mine water reuse
It is estimated that between 1m3 and 2.5m3 of groundwater reserves are destroyed per tonne of coal mined. The groundwater resources destroyed are contaminated with acid chemicals and wastes from the mining process and are often not collected and treated. Instead they are simply discharged back to the environment. This not only leads to loss of groundwater resources but also transfers pollution to the surface.

Improper use & release of coal mining water leads to reduced groundwater resouces & spreads pollution

Without proper handling of the “released” groundwater, the impacts will not only be wasted groundwater resources but might also bring about safety concerns for mines (see more here). On 19 April 2015, a coal mine in Shanxi was flooded with water from a ground-level reservoir: 226 mine workers survived though 21 died.

Groundwater protection in agriculture: irrigation water-savings and non-point sources pollution control
Agricultural water use has been rising from 369 billion m3 in 2010 to 392 billion m3 in 2013. This increase could be attributed to the fact that irrigated farmland has increased by 3.2 million hectares (2010-2013) in line with the 2011 No. 1 Document. In the meantime, it appears that not enough has been done to improve irrigation efficiency. Therefore, for the next five to ten years, improving irrigation water will continue to be key to hold the ‘Three Red Lines’.

Water Ten targets five key provinces for agri water targets

The Water Ten Plan has put the spotlight on Henan, Shandong, Hebei, Gansu & Xinjiang. The reason is that these 5 provinces heavily rely on groundwater  and also over extract groundwater and surface water where agriculture water has a large share.

The following actions will be taken:

  • Change crop mix away from water intensive crops;
  • Crop mix to favour drought resilient strains and high value plantations; and
  • By the end of 2018, 33 million mu of irrigated land to implement irrigation improvements to extract water savings of over 3.7 billion m3.

On the other hand, pollution exacerbates scarcity. The Water Ten Plan clearly sets out targets to tackle non-point source pollution from agriculture by 2020:

  • Compliant use of fertilizer in line with soil testing should reach 90%;
  • Fertiliser utilization rate should be no less than 40% (more on the Water Ten Plan & agricutlure here);
  • Livestock breeding to be prohibited in targeted zones by 2017. In permitted areas, new and retrofitted livestock farms should have proper wastewater treatment; and
  • Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Yangtze River Delta & Pearl River Delta to have achieve the above one year ahead of the national deadlines.

Save the sinking cities: Resuse urban water

As mentioned, over 61% of Chinese cities reply on groundwater for drinking water sources. Because of overextraction of groundwater, many cities are sinking. Therefore, the Water Ten Plan wants to promote water reuse in cities in water scarce regions:

  • Urban water reuse rates to reach 20% by 2020;
  • Public buildings above 20,000sqm must have water reuse facilities within them
  • The following industries are single out: if factories within these do not fully reuse their water, they will not be able to access new Water Use Permits:
    • Iron & steel
    • Chemicals
    • Textile Dyeing & Finishing; and
    • Paper & pulp
    • The water reuse rate of Beijing, Tianjin & Hebei = 30% by 2020; Public buildings above 20,000sqm must have water reuse facilities within them; also public housing above 20,000sqm, 50,000sqm and 100,000sqm respectively must have water reuse facilities.

Over-extraction: Pressure is mounting on groundwater reseves in North China Plain

Groundwater in the North is seriously over-extracted. The Dry 11 provinces (primarily in the North) use over half of their total groundwater resources compared to the national groundwater supply rate of 15%. According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), the total groundwater over-extraction areas have amounted to 230,000 km2, which is 60,000 km2 more than that in 2012. This is almost (95%) equivalent to the land area of UK.

Total groundwater over-extracted areas almost 95% of the land area of the UK

Over-extraction of groundwater has resulted in depletion of groundwater reserves in the North, especially the North China Plain. The latest groundwater monitoring data released by Ministry of Water Resources (MWR) in December 2014 showed an overall decrease of over 8 billion m3 in groundwater reserves in monitored northern plains from December 2013 to December 2014 (see chart below). This is almost equivalent to the annual average withdrawn amount of Phase I of the Eastern Route of the South-North Water Transfer Project. This is shocking: most of them are Dry 11 provinces and water transfers are expected to alleviate water stress in these regions.

Changes in Groundwater Reserves in Northern China December 2013 - December 2014

It is clear from the above chart that the North China Plain as a whole experienced material depletion in groundwater reserves against relatively small gains in some provinces:

  • Hebei: experienced the biggest drop in groundwater reserves at 4 billion m3;
  • Henan: had an increase in groundwater reserve. However, according to the latest survey result released by Henan provincial government, the groundwater over-extraction areas in Henan is now at 44,393 km2, about a quarter of the land area of the province. This combined with the severe drought in 2014 meant that the average fall in water tables was about 2.1m.

Groundwater depletion impacts water supplies, increased salinity & expose infrastructure

Groundwater depletion leads to far-reaching consequences. It not only contributes to the drying up of lakes and wetlands but increases salinity of groundwater supplies. Furthermore, over-extraction gives rise to subsidence, which causes damage to infrastructure as well as reduces aquifer storage capacity. To manage that, the new Water Ten Plan sets out the following actions:

  • Control Groundwater over-extraction including water embedded in shale;
  • Extraction of geo-thermal water & mineral water will require mining permit;
  • Over-extracted groundwater areas to be drawn by 2017; Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Yangtze River Delta & Pearl River Delta to have a shorter deadline of 2016; and
  • No new industrial use of groundwater is allowed in over-extracted groundwater areas in the North China Plain.

Regulations on groundwater will be tightened & we expect revised standards soon

Regulations on groundwater will be tightened. The Water Ten Plan aims to revise the standard of groundwater quality; moreover, there are plans to revise standards of pollutant discharge for urban wastewater, sludge and agriculture runoff. Although no specific deadline is given, we expect the revision will probably come soon given groundwater’s current dire situation.

Further Reading

  • Water Ten: Comply Or Else – China’s new Water Ten Plan sets tough action on pollution prevention & control. While this is good for the water sector, less obvious is who or which sectors will be impacted. China Water Risk’s Tan on why China is serious about its fast & furious pollution reforms to propel China to a new norm
  • Water Ten To Revamp Chinese Agriculture – Takeaways from Shanghai’s Global Agriculture Sustainability Forum are reviewed in relation to the new Water Ten Plan. Fertilizer, pesticide, irrigation & product tractability markets look set to change. China Water Risk’s Hu on what the new plan means for the future of Chinese agriculture
  • Water In Coal: Still Murky – Multiple policies were issued recently over the proper management of coal mine water, in particular mine water reuse to alleviate groundwater woes. But the road ahead is still murky. China Water Risk’s Thieriot walks us through inconsistencies in data & targets

More on groundwater

  • 2013 State of Environment Report Review – MEP’s 2013 State of Environment Report says the ‘overall environmental quality was average’ but a closer look reveals mixed news, whilst discrepancies found in sets of pollution data add uncertainty of the real state of the environment
  • Underground Shifts: Subsidence Review – Subsidence goes hand in hand with groundwater over-extraction. With over 400 out of the 655 cities in China reliant on groundwater, can China mitigate subsidence risk? We explore related costs such as infrastructure damage, saltwater intrusion & increased desertification
  • Sinking Cities: Cracks in the Ground – With 50 cities in China at risk of subsidence, Xinying Tok discusses the link with groundwater over-extraction and falling water tables and how if this continues, could pose a major financial and physical risk to real estate
  • Groundwater Crackdown – Hope Springs – The economy slows down but the Chinese government speeds up groundwater crackdown with increased transparency, blacklists at both central and provincial levels.

More on coal mining & groundwater

  • China: Not Ready To Move Away From Coal – Professor Xie Kechang, Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, on the future role of coal, strategies to ensure energy security & challenges ahead for coal-to-chemicals
  • Water Drives Coal Reform – To ensure energy security, China needs to protect its No 1 fuel source against water scarcity. Feng Hu takes a closer look at what the new water-for-coal plan and other related policies mean for coal and coal-related industries
  • Water for Coal: Thirsty Miners? – With up to 83% of China’s coal reserves in water stressed & scarce regions, the recent CLSA report asks if there is enough water to grow coal production. If not, what are our options? Debra Tan expands

Rural & urban water management

  • Can The Water Ten Protect Water Sources? – Some 40% of urban residents drink bottled water. This could change with the Water Ten Plan which aims to eventually deliver safe drinking water from the tap. Are the water source protection targets tough enough or will the bottle water market proliferate? CWR’s Liu & McGregor expand
  • Water Source: Who Is Responsible? – Data shows water source quality improving but some experts question how accurate this can be without a specific standard? Moreover, pollutants, ineffective treatment & unclear ministry responsibilities pose threats. CWR’s Hongqiao Liu expands
  • Soil & Water Pollution: Forecasting Impact -In the face of large scale soil and groundwater pollution a risk and megasite approach is best to remediate in a cost effective and sustainable manner. Deltares’ Dr. Annemieke Marsman outlines the strategy they developed
  • Irrigation: Big Gains in Small Farms – With 95% of farms in China are less than two hectares compared to 86% in India, Syngenta’s Dr Sandhikar discusses why the training of the smallholder to adopt water efficient tech in small farms is key. Panipipes, drip irrigation with Plastic Mulch can help reduce groundwater usage and falling groundwater tables
Feng Hu
Author: Feng Hu
Having previously led CWR’s work on water-nomics, Feng now sits on our advisory panel to help us push the conversation on integrating water considerations in planning sustainable transition and mobilising finance toward climate and water resilience. Feng currently works on ESG advisory at a regional financial institution. Prior to that, Feng worked as Sustainable Finance Research Manager APAC at V.E, part of Moody’s ESG Solutions. During his time at CWR, he initiated and led projects for CWR including the joint policy briefs with China’s Foreign Economic Cooperation Office of the Ministry of Environmental Protection on the water-nomics of the Yangtze River Economic Belt. Feng expanded the water-nomics conversation beyond China by co-authoring CWR’s seminal report “No Water No Growth – Does Asia Have Enough Water To Develop?”. He has given talks on water-nomics and other water issues at international conferences, academic symposiums, corporate trainings and investor forums. Previously, Feng also sat on the Technical Working Group of the Initiative for Climate Action Transparency (ICAT) and worked as a senior carbon auditor on various types of climate change mitigation projects across Asia and Africa. Feng holds two MSc degrees – one in Finance (Economic Policy) from SOAS University of London and the other in Sustainable Resource Management from Technical University of Munich – and a BSc degree in Environmental Science from Zhejiang University.
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