What Price Water?

April 1, 2010 — Leave a comment

Dwindling Chinese water supplies raise global concerns.

Rapid economic expansion is having a positive effect on living standards and quality of life across China. Unfortunately, industrial pollution and inefficient water use are imperiling that newfound prosperity, as well as the health and well-being of millions of Chinese.

Klaus Hubacek and Dabo Guan from Leeds University’s Sustainability Research Institute are looking at how water is being used across China and have reached several startling discoveries. Due to uneven industrial development across the country, the most water-intensive and highly polluting industries have migrated to the very regions where water is the scarcest. “You would expect drier regions to depend chiefly on industries that use less water and import goods that require a lot of water to produce. In fact, our study found the opposite to be true,” says Hubacek.

The relatively arid region of northern China exports primarily paper, textiles, processed foods, and other agricultural products that often use fertilizers. Fertilizers and pesticides are among the primary sources of pollution for rivers, lakes and streams, which are heavily drawn upon in northern China. This region supports half of the country’s population but holds just one-fifth of its water. Fresh water in southern China is far easier to come by, yet this region imports most of its food from the north and exports primarily electronic goods and social services-two industries that use comparatively little water.

The result, the researchers conclude, is a lopsided and dangerous industrial policy.

“Over the past 30 years, Chinese economic policies have supported Guandong more than other regions, leading to a boom in industries that use fewer natural resources in their production,” says Hubacek. “Environmental resources have been seen as cost-free in China, and as such have not been considered an important factor in economic decision making. However, for economic expansion to be sustainable, economic policies and development must take into account water consumption and availability. This is as true in China as it is elsewhere-including the United Kingdom.”

The problem is not restricted to Asia. China’s trade surplus with the rest of the world has grown significantly in recent years to a historic high of $13 billion in May 2006. Though Western consumers might not be aware of it, their buying habits have a direct and visible effect on the environment, and economic policy, on the other side of the globe.

“Most of the goods we consume are produced in China and other developing countries, and so we export a lot of our pollution problems to them-which is partly why the United Kingdom and other developed countries are so successful in improving their environmental records. Our work on virtual water flows is a first step toward making those trade links visible,” says Hubacek.

Other environmental experts have expressed similar concerns about resource shortages in the region. According to Earth Policy Institute President Lester R. Brown, the water shortages in northern China could have a global effect. They are also, he says, indicative of the sorts of challenges that will increase in the century ahead.

“Overpumping is a measure we use to increase current food production that almost guarantees a drop in future food production,” Brown remarks in the recently released No Vacancy: Global Responses to the Human Population Explosion. “We’re beginning to see this now play out in northern China where water tables are falling. . . . China has been offsetting this decline by drawing down its stocks, but it probably can’t do that for more than another year or two, then it’s going to have to go to the world market.” -Patrick Tucker

Sources: University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, United Kingdom. Telephone +44 (0) 113 243 1751. Web site http://www.leeds.ac.uk.

Originally published in THE FUTURIST September-October 2006

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