Posted by: Dr Pano Kroko Churchill | May 21, 2013

Desertification, water scarcity, pollution and climate chaos – all threaten China’s existential future

After my last trip to China, I came to think of ways the future of this great nation is threatened because I chaired the Low Carbon Earth Summit in Canton and was exposed to a whole lot of the internal environmental issues of China. because of that I was then invited to participate in the Global Threats symposium in Beijing that informs the highest members of the Politburo about the future threats.

This year after my Innovation Master Class at Tsinghua University I was asked to offer the Commencement Address to the graduating engineering class of this vast intellectual factory this technical University represents. And was also asked to co-chair next year’s Low Carbon Earth Summit in Xi’an.

The most important Environmental Conference in China is this LCES-2013 summit which takes place in Xi’an, China, during Sep 26-28, 2013. The interesting thing about this Summit is that it is practical and Business friendly and also Innovation ready. Therefore, the title of my speech is:

”We can achieve a Low Carbon Earth Balance within our Lifetime through Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Technology”

And with all this knowledge, and my many years of working in China, am naturally often asked by the various leaders about my thoughts on this or that issue and what is the most serious challenge to China’s future.

My answer is simple:


I don’t say this lightly. Yet because in the face of China’s rapid economic expansion and growing presence on the global stage, it is often forgotten that the country is running out of water, we need to set the record and the priorities straight. And for those who think the vast Himalay glaciers or the great rivers will sort out the problem — they are both running dry and dirty…

To measure things properly: In per capita terms, China’s water resources are just a quarter of the world average. Eight of China’s 28 provinces are as parched as countries in the Middle East such as Jordan and Syria, according to China Water Risk. Desertification is advancing at a break neck speed and the dust bowl effect is evident all over China’s provinces. Civilizations have collapsed under a lot less pressure than this in our not so distant past. So this is serious shit…

let’s take as an example the great oasis in China’s Gansu region which is the Minqin county.  This was the famed cotton belt. A formerly lush county, sandwiched between the vast deserts of Inner Mongolia, now suffers the effects of a prolonged drought. It has become a dust bowl. Here and now the problem is particularly severe.  This is where a 63-year-old cotton farmer named Mr Wang Fuguo, lives. Mr Wang’s family has always lived here and for several generations cultivated cotton which is a particularly water intensive form of agriculture. But then water was plentiful… He does not know when his ancestors first began tilling the land in the dusty village of Weijie where the family graves stretch for centuries. Yet he is fairly sure he will be the last of his family to do so. He hasn’t put in any cotton for at least fifteen years…

“They’ve all fled,” he says, looking out from his gate at the abandoned houses that line the village’s only street.

The reason is simple. “There’s just no water here,” he says. “If you don’t have water you can’t survive.”

In reality his household gets some running water…

Once every five days. For a whole hour.

His tap has water running through it only once every five days – for one hour.  And he waits for this and he runs his tap full tilt once every five days – for that hour. And with storing & saving as much as possible of the precious water, Wang is able to survive.  Barely.  He survives mainly because he is able to water a tiny patch of aubergines and greens for his food, and also supply his water drinking needs and his dozen sheep with fresh water. All of it, on this ration, of an hour of water every five days and sometimes it doesn’t even run then.

Mr Wang’s neighbours are not the only ones who have moved away. More than 100,000 people have left the area and have become shengtai yimin, “ecological migrants”.  Or what the Environmental Parliament calls Climate Refugees…

Chinese officials identify water scarcity as one of the nation’s most pressing difficulties. The problems are social, political and economic. This year Beijing for the first time issued water quotas to every province, setting targets for annual consumption by 2015.

The water shortage is made even more urgent by China’s rapid urbanisation, as expanding cities have greater water needs. More than 300m people are expected to move into cities between now and 2030.

This transformation comes as the Chinese are becoming far more critical and vocal about the way they are governed. Weibo, a Twitter-like social network, is routinely filled with users sharing information about pollution violations. Some users even dare officials to take a dip in the rivers they are supposed to be in charge of keeping clean. At times the government’s inability to control its waterways has made it the object of public ridicule, such as when more than 16,000 dead pig carcases floated down Shanghai’s main waterway this year.

The economic problems are formidable, with the water shortages threatening to slam the brakes on growth. According to a World Bank report in 2007, water problems cost China economic losses of 2.3 per cent of gross domestic product. Executives say that water shortages are already starting to reshape their industries.

“Serious water scarcity is one of the big problems that has slowed down social and economic development in the north,” says Jiang Liping, water specialist at the World Bank in Beijing.

China’s lack of water is itself partly a result of economic growth. As people grow wealthier and move to cities, they eat more water-intensive foods, buy more water-intensive products and use more water at home. Changing climate also plays a role, as rainfall patterns and river flows shift. All this is exacerbated by a strained agricultural sector – which accounts for 60 per cent of China’s water use. Farmers are digging ever deeper to access water supplies and irrigate more of their land.

Water scarcity threatens China. Because water scarcity is also worsened by the heavy pollution that accompanies China’s economic growth. “Controlling pollution is the most difficult aspect of China’s water policies,” says Xia Jun, director of the centre for water resources research at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “Even in places that have water — it is so polluted that you might not be able to use it.” Already, upwards of 40% of the water in China’s major rivers is too toxic to be fit for any contact with humans – let alone to drink to quench one’s thirst to survive, or use for agriculture…

And yet people who have no other option, they do just that. They drink the nasty toxic cancerous water… And they use it for agriculture as well with nary a thought of the ”downstream effects. ”  Because as people here say, ”when you find available water, you don’t question your luck — you just use it.”  And if it’s toxic, then you get other side effects, like the cadmium rice that consumers are up in arms about these days…  “Cadmium rice,” as it’s dubbed, or rice laced with levels of the metal cadmium that exceed national safety standards, has become the latest food scare in China, sparking a health and P.R. scandal in a nation long used to — and deeply worried about — unsafe food. Last week, the authorities in the southern province of Guangdong found that more than 44 percent of rice or rice products tested there contained too-high levels of the poisonous metal which is found in zinc ores and, to a lesser extent, in greenockite.  Long term, Xinhua and People’s Daily noted, the problem must be solved by cleaning up China’s waters, agricultural soil, and refuse disposal sites — all known to be contaminated in many areas from industrial waste and mining. It also needs better environmental protection laws and implementation, as well as better testing, they said. The articles singled out lead as another soil contaminant. Cadmium is used in nickel-cadmium batteries in mobile phones, cameras and computers. As a major battery producer, China is a major consumer of cadmium.

“Cadmium in rice usually comes from the water and from the soil where it grows, and the soil was polluted by mining and chemical wastes,” Fan Zhihong, a food safety expert at China Agricultural University in Beijing, told the state-run Global Times.

Cadmium, a known carcinogen, builds up in the body and damages the kidneys and lungs and can cause bone disease. Ingestion via food is the main source for nonsmokers, while smokers’ intake may be twice that of nonsmokers, according to the Web site

In a sign of the gravity of the problem, Beijing is planning to pour Rmb1.8tn ($291 billion) into water-related infrastructure projects such as irrigation and dams under the current five year plan – a sum that is greater than the annual gross domestic product of economies such as Egypt and Chile.

Loss of livelihood for farmers is just one example of the huge pressure that water scarcity is putting on China’s whole commercial landscape. The country’s growth and political stability are increasingly threatened by the widespread degradation of its air, water, and soil.

And now comes along the issue of toxic waste creeping in all sorts of places like in the plastic foam containers that the take away food comes into. And it’s really scary toxins that these guys put into making the white foam plastic food containers as if this is a smart way to resolve the issue of Toxic Waste. Give it to the people to eat…  What a mess.

And along with the cadmium rice comes now this. So you can be eating your batteries quietly, all along thinking it’s just rice — in a  toxic stew of a white foam container. This is called chop-chop fast food ‘Take Away” in modern toxic China.

Methinks — Something’s gotta give…

So it’s still the water that is the gravest threat to National Security here. And even the vaunted China’s energy sector is particularly threatened by water shortages. Promising new technologies will be constrained in some areas. Projects to develop shale gas, for example, require large amounts of water for hydraulic fracking. Even as Beijing builds new nuclear power plants at a record rate, the government has also announced a moratorium on inland nuclear plants because of concerns over water supply and safety.

All uses of energy are connected with water — In the past, when there was not a shortage of water resources, people would only think about how much water they needed on the site where they wanted to build a project. Now it’s the other way around. The volume of water available determines how much energy can be developed in a certain place.”

The state’s deep concern about water has resulted in some of the toughest laws on water use and water pollution anywhere in the world, although corruption and weak rule of law mean implementation is patchy. “You have to build the most sophisticated water treatment plants in the world to fulfil the law,” says an executive in the chemicals industry. “The water laws are sometimes causing investors to rethink, given the amount of investment needed.”

However, many question whether these tough laws and the billions spent on water infrastructure will really ease the water crisis. Some Chinese scientists have lambasted the expensive projects at the core of Beijing’s water strategy, including the giant diversion system that will carry water thousands of kilometres from southern to northern China to alleviate shortages there.

That project, known as the South-North Water Transfer, will cost at least $41 billion and has forced more than 300,000 people to relocate, with engineers cutting new canals and reservoirs. Other efforts to ease the water shortages in northern China, such as the desalination plants springing up on the coast near Tianjin, are also expensive and consume large amounts of energy.




And with global warming the world is still likely to be in for a temperature rise of double what regarded as safe.

The best Climate and Earth scientists and researchers alike — same as NASA and other world bodies see warming as most likely to reach about 4C – 6C  above pre-industrial levels.

That would lead to catastrophe across large swaths of the Earth, causing droughts, storms, floods and heatwaves, and drastic effects on agricultural productivity leading to secondary effects such as mass migration. This will surely exacerbate China’s main water scarcity difficulties…

China spends upwards of 7% of it’s GDP to address Climate Change issues and as far as the people’s very survival is concerned — this one is probably the most important of them all.

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