Water Scarcity and Social Equality in China
Image Credit: Flickr/ Daveybot

Water Scarcity and Social Equality in China


Over the last couple months, China has had record-breaking problems with pollution.  This past January, Beijing’s air pollution (PM 2.5) readings reached 886µg/m3, far surpassing the Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization’s standards for acceptable air quality. In fact, pollution has become so bad that some Chinese experts have said it is worse than SARS.

But for all the attention air pollution has received, it’s quite likely that water scarcity will prove to be China’s more vexing problem. Fortunately, the government is taking proactive steps to help prevent a water crisis.

China faces a pressing shortage of usable water. The China Daily reports that over 400 cities have a deficiency of water while 110 of them face serious shortages of water. The problem is exacerbated by water pollution, which further reduces the availability of usable water. As Elizabeth Economy has noted, “Up to 40 percent of China’s rivers were seriously polluted and 20 percent were so polluted their water quality was rated too toxic even to come into contact with.”

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China’s water shortage has the potential to disrupt its development and worsen existing social tensions. It also constrains Beijing’s ability to exploit certain opportunities like shale gas.

But the Chinese government is cognizant of the challenge and is actively seeking to address it. In its most recent  Five Year Plan (2011-2015), for example, the government pledges to “reverse the trend of ecological degradation from the grassroots by implementing major ecological restoration and bolstering natural forest conservation and reforestation.” It also promises to address “desertification and soil petrification” while preserving grasslands and wetlands. The plan says the government will “accelerate the establishment of ecological compensation mechanisms and the protection of major ecologically functional areas” and will “reinforce water and soil conservation by promoting sand consolidation.”

This isn’t merely hollow rhetoric. Forest Trends, a global non-profit, published a recent report focusing on investments in watershed projects around the world that found that China accounted for 61 of 205 active watershed investment programs in 2011, second only to the U.S.’ 67 active projects. In terms of dollars amount China is likely ahead of the U.S. As the report explains: “China represents the lion’s share of reported payments [worldwide] as the country’s leadership has increased funding for ‘eco-compensation’ mechanisms and placed eco-compensation in a key role in the most recent national Five-Year Plan.”  

In fact, China’s growing investment in watershed projects has helped keep global levels of investment steady despite declines in other areas of the world. As Forest Trends notes, China’s aggregate investment in ecological infrastructure has “more than offset falling investments in ecological infrastructure in North and Latin America, traditionally global leaders in funding watershed protection.”

China’s eco-compensation strategy reaches into all echelons of Chinese society, with the report noting that the government has focused on “compensation and cooperation between government bodies and households, communities, and other arms of government” to address problems stemming from ecological degradation. That being said, much of China’s water scarcity policies aim in part to offset rising social disparities that economic development has created, while also fostering more sustainable development.

A good example is the construction of three additional reservoirs on the Yellow River. The reservoirs – Guxian, Qikou, and Heishanxia – will be built over the next two decades and, once completed, will help improve “water and silt control, flood prevention, water and soil erosion prevention, water resource allocation and utilization, water resource and water ecology protection, and the drainage areas’ comprehensive management.” The director of the Yellow River Conservancy Commission of the Ministry Water Resources, Chen Xiaojing, has noted optimistically that, “The development, protection and management of the Yellow River will have strategic significance for the promotion of China’s sustainable development and environmental protection efforts.”

Another project currently underway in Zhuhai City, Guangdong province requires that polluters pay compensation directly to the victims of their activities. According to the Forest Trends report, this program was implemented to help those living in the area to more easily benefit from Guangdong’s “economic reforms, industrialization, and the results of modernization.”  In 2009, the city reserved US$106 million for the Zhuhai City Drinking Water Source Protection Area Support and Incentive Instrument program, which provides “health insurance for 108,000 rural residents in the drinking water source areas as non-cash compensation for foregone livelihood benefits.”

Thus, there are important socioeconomic benefits to these ecological investments, in addition to protecting important water resources. Forest Trends, for instance, “tracked 54 programs that report explicit social objectives, exhibiting a variety of social goals” and found that “nearly half of these are in China, where eco-compensation can be considered in part a rural welfare support program to more evenly distribute benefits of economic growth to poorer regions of the country.”

The report also mentions that such investments can help contribute to community development, by improving incomes and food security while reducing income inequality. As this underscores, addressing water security can translate into greater social stability in rural China. After all, along with local land grabs many rural protests stem from water scarcity and pollution issues.

Thus, addressing water security can boost government legitimacy while also helping advance key objectives of the Chinese government, including accelerating the pace of urbanization. As China Daily notes, “It may be costly to include water conservation, the protection of drinking water sources, the effective treatment of sewage and efficient use of treated water as well as the collection of rainwater in urban planning, but it will be even more costly when we realize a decade later that the lack of water threatens our existence and we have to make up for what we failed to do 10 years earlier.” 

Elleka Watts is an editorial assistant at The Diplomat.

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