Exploitation and use of water resources

China has a wealth of water resources yet at the same time one of the worst water- resource shortages in the world. It ranks sixth in terms of total quantity, since the country contains 2.81 x 103 billion tons of water, yet it ranks as 108th in the world in terms of water per capita. It has just 28% of the average per capita water resources in the world.

China’s water resources are spread unevenly through the year, and water is unevenly distributed across China’s landmass. Situated on the west coast of the Pacific Ocean, China is under the strong influence of a continental monsoon climate. Rainfall is mainly concentrated in the summer and fall seasons - most areas get 70% of their total annual precipitation within four consecutive months. Affected by geographic factors, water resources are mainly located south of the Yangtze River (see Figure 1.4). The Yangtze River drainage basin and agricultural areas south of the river only hold 36% of the country’s arable land, however, while water resources in this area are 80% of the country’s total. The water resources of the drainage basins of the Yellow, Huaihe, and Haihe Rivers constitute just 8% of the country’s total, but the arable land that they serve is 40% of the country’s total. Water and land resources are therefore not matched up for optimum use.

The intensity with which China exploits and uses water resources is already quite high. In 2015, China’s total amount of supplied water reached 610.32 billion cubic meters, which accounted for 21.8% of total water resources in the country in that year. This figure exceeded the peak level of usage in the United States. In terms of the sources of the water supplied in China in 2015, 81.4% came from surface water, or 496.95 billion cubic meters, while 17.5% came from underground water, or 106.92 billion cubic meters. Another 1.1% came from ‘other sources,’ or 6.45 billion cubic meters. In terms of the use to which water was put, 13% was for domestic use (daily living), 21.9% was for industry, and 63.1% was for agriculture. Another 2% was for ecological/environmental use. This latter category' included the artificial supply of water for urban environmental use, and some supplementary water provided artificially to replenish rivers, lakes, and wetlands. In terms of water consumption, the total consumption of water in China in 2014 came to 321.7 billion cubic meters, for a consumption rate of 52.9% (i.e., total consumption as a percentage of total water usage).7 Given ongoing increases in urbanization and industrialization, the demand for water resources will continue to climb in the future, placing extreme pressure on the balance between supply and demand.

Severe water pollution has exacerbated the problem ofwater shortages. In 2015, China discharged a total quantity of 77 billion tons of wastewater. An evaluation of the water quality of China’s 235,000 kilometers of rivers shows that 74.2% have a water quality of between Grade I and III, which is an increase of 2 percentage points over 2014.8 An evaluation of 116 lakes indicates that 25% of water quality ratings are between Grade I and III, showing that the water quality situation is average at best. In teims of administrative regions of the country, the western part of the country has somewhat better water quality than the central part (excluding the main stretches of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers). Water quality in the central part of the country is somewhat better than in the east. In the east, despite relatively abundant water, some areas are facing water shortages due to poor water quality - some 78.3% of the 116 bodies of lakes that were evaluated are eutrophic, that is, overly nutrified.

Distribution of water resources in China Source

Figure 1.4 Distribution of water resources in China Source: people com cn

China has carried out severe overexploitation of underground water resources. This problem is particularly pronounced in the northwestern region, where water is scarce. In 2014, a statistical analysis was done of the mining of underground water in sixteen provincial-level administrative districts that cover 730,000 square kilometers of land. At the end of the year, water reserves measured at a shallow level underground totaled 7.25 billion cubic meters less than they did at the beginning of the year. Eight provincial-level districts (including autonomous regions and direct-report cities) also showed diminished water reserves. Among these, the underground water reserves of Hebei declined by 5.31 billion cubic meters, those of Liaoning by 1.66 billion cubic meters, and those of Shandong by 1.25 billion cubic meters. Given excessive exploitation of water reserves year after year, a vast area in the northeastern part of China, that is, the North China Plain, has already become an entire zone in which the surface of the land is subsiding. This is leading to the danger of geological and ecological catastrophe.

China has adopted a seiies of measures to cope with these problems. These initiatives are attempting to address the water shortages and the way the country’s water and land resources are unevenly distributed. Since the founding of New China (1949), the country has implemented a number of large-scale water diversions from one region to another, including such showcase projects such as the south-to-north water diversion project and the Luanhe River to Tianjin water diversion project. To a degree, these large-scale cross-regional projects have improved the situation of an imbalance in water resources between China’s regions. However, generating social, ecological, and economic benefits from these projects over the long term remains a challenging issue.

In recent years, China has implemented stronger controls over wastewater discharges from both industrial and domestic use, as well as stronger cleanup procedures. In urban areas, levels of water treatment have improved, both in capacity and in actual treatment, given greater investment in public services. By the end of 2014, 90% of wastewater (sewage) in China’s cities was being treated. The figure in the countryside is less than 10%, however, where sewage treatment remains at a very low level.

The use of seawater and the use of recycled water will be important in alleviating the shortage of water resources in China, but at the present time, these measures are only taken on a fairly small scale. The direct utilization of seawater in China comes to a total quantity of 71.4 billion square meters of water, which primarily serves as coolant in coal-fired (and nuclear) power plants. This direct use of seawater is mainly in Guangdong (28.67 billion square meters), Zhejiang (15.53 billion square meters), Fujian (5.84 billion square meters), Jiangsu (5.63 billion square meters), and Shandong (5.57 billion square meters). In addition to this, desalinization technology has developed rapidly in recent years and the cost of per unit desalinization projects is reaching a level that can allow for economies of scale. Meanwhile, recycling water is a key way to address the scarcity of water in China, but at the present time, less than 1% of the total water supply comes from recycled sources. There is enormous potential for developing this in the future.

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