Spotlight On: The Water Crisis In China
As one of the fastest growing economies in the world, China is home to some 20 per cent of the world’s population – but it only has six per cent of global freshwater resources… and climate change is now having an impact on what little is available, reducing accessible resources and triggering a serious water crisis in the country.
Global warming has seen temperatures in the glacial region increase over the last 50 years, which has had a big impact on glacial meltwater from the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. This, in turn, has affected water flow from both the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, which have supplied civilisations for thousands of years.
Research from Greenpeace shows that over 82 per cent of glaciers in China have retreated since the 50s, while the volume of glacier meltwater in the cryosphere rose by more than half between 1960 and 2006. This has had an impact on agriculture, as well as causing flooding and leading to the formation of dangerous glacial lakes.
In western China, some regions have seen annual average temperature increases by three degrees C or more since the early 1950s… and unless drastic action is taken to slow global warming, it’s projected that around two-thirds of glaciers in High Mountain Asia – one of the most climate-sensitive regions in the world – will be gone by the end of the century.
As these glaciers retreat, the volume of meltwater will continue to increase until it reaches peak water. From there, a dramatic decrease will be seen, which will lead to severe water shortages across the country. A recent study even suggests that Tianshan No 1, the largest glacier that feeds into the Urumqi River in Xinjiang province, will reach peak water in 2030.
China is currently facing a record-breaking drought, with a nationwide alert issued earlier this month (August) in response to a severe heatwave in the south-west, which is expected to continue to make its presence felt well into September.
According to the Guardian, some rivers have started to dry up, including some parts of the Yangtze. This is having an impact on hydropower, bringing shipping to a halt and forcing some big household companies to stop production.
For example, Sichuan recently suspended or limited power supply to thousands of factories and rationed usage of public electricity because of water shortages – and corporations such as Toyota, Tesla and Foxconn were reported to have suspended operations temporarily at some of their plants over the last few weeks.
In Sichuan, more than 80 per cent of all energy needs are met through hydropower, but the provincial government declared that it had reached the highest warning level of ‘particularly severe’, with waterflower to hydropower reservoirs reducing by half.
As for the Yangtze, the third biggest river in the world, water flow along its main truck is currently more than 50 per cent below the average seen over the last five years, with shipping routes in the middle and lower sections now closed.
As well as providing drinking water resources to over 400 million Chinese people, the river is also essential for the global supply chain, so the fact that it reached record low levels this summer is concerning, to say the least.
In a recent issue of the US policy journal Foreign Affairs, it was suggested that China is now facing a very real water catastrophe and “potential water-driven disruptions beginning in China will reverberate around the world”, because of how important Chinese water resources are to the global economy.
According to the Irish Times, consequences would include both food and industrial material shortages far greater than those seen during the pandemic or the Ukraine emergency.
Regional governments have been taking steps to reduce the risks presented where food supply and industry are concerned, such as returning to coal-fired energy plants and other more long-term solutions, such as cloud seeding, desalination or increased use of Russian or Tibetan water.
Another problem facing water resources is that India is also under pressure from similar issues, with 40 per cent of the population working in the agriculture industry – which is draining many aquifers almost dry.
Water conflicts may potentially be seen because of shared water resources, with Pakistan, China and India all relying on the Himalayan plateau for supplies.
The news source went on to observe: “Water can no longer be treated as unseen, undervalued or casually appropriated by intensive agriculture and fast fashion using and polluting huge volumes of water.
“Globalised trade systems privilege the rich world by separating production and consumption of water-based vegetables and clothes. We can no longer take water for granted.”
Greenpeace policy recommendations for China include improving long-term risk assessments and strategic adaptation planning. Early warning systems should be established in places where glacier flooding is high risk, while sustainable water management policies should be implemented according to changes in runoff.
In addition, it was advised that China’s 2030 climate targets should be urgently enhanced, including accelerating the timeline for peaking emissions and increasing carbon intensity reduction targets.
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