China’s Water Problem

Climate change is causing a looming water shortage for Asia, but Singapore offers an example of how solutions can be found.

This summer’s weather has been intense. In Beijing, flash floods paralyzed the capital in late July and killed at least 77 people. A storm that flooded Manila turned the Philippines’ capital into what one official called “Water World.”  Hong Kong raised the Signal Ten typhoon warning for the first time in 13 years.

Welcome to the new normal of more intense weather. Two centuries of heavy fossil fuel use have probably pushed climate change beyond a tipping point. That means brutal storms will become more common. So, too, will droughts and intense heat, such as much of the United States is enduring – weather that is more extreme than that seen in the Dust Bowl days of Depression-era America in the 1930s.

Weather is what it feels like when you go outside today, climatologists like to say. Climate – and climate change – is the long-term pattern of temperature and precipitation. There’s little doubt that climate change is here and that it’s going to have a more severe impact on our lives in the decades ahead.

Last year was the 34th straight year of above-average temperatures, dating back to when record-keeping began in 1880. What’s happening this summer is very much in line with what scientists have predicted: As greenhouse gases build up in the Earth’s atmosphere, the warmer atmosphere holds more moisture. Rainfall, when it comes, is more intense. Droughts, too, are more severe and frequent.

The news photos of people flooded out of their homes gets good play on TV and in newspapers. But it is drought, and a general shortage of water, that is one of Asia’s most worrying long-term threats. Flooding is deadly, costly and in general inconvenient. But too much water is almost always better than not enough.

This wet, stormy summer shouldn’t hide the simple fact that Asia doesn’t have enough water to keep up a business-as-usual stance if its economic growth is to continue. Northern China – including cities such as Beijing and Tianjin – is especially at risk, with only as much water per person as the Middle East.

This looming water shortage means Asia needs to start using the water it has more efficiently. Looking around the region, Singapore stands out as a model for sensible water practices. The city-state, with a population of some 5 million people, historically depended on Malaysia for water. Singapore decided that it wanted to take its future into its own hands. Its pioneering NEWater facilities recycle waste water into drinking water, making up an impressive 30 percent of the country’s total needs. NEWater stands out as one of the world’s most innovative and successful large-scale waste-to-water projects.

Singapore has made a virtue out of necessity, establishing itself as a global leader in best-practice urban water management. Hyflux and Keppel, two home-grown companies, are significant global players in water. Singapore has taken other steps to marry sustainable water practices with good business. An annual “water week” is one of the biggest trade shows of its sort in the world, and allows both local and international firms a convenient place to strike deals. The recently inaugurated Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize honors those who have made a major contribution to global water issues.

Water is under-priced. Using Singapore as a reference, the non-profit research group China Water Risk calculates that Beijing, Chongqing and Tianjin could be facing a tripling of water prices. Shenzhen, Shanghai and Guangzhou could be looking at a five-fold increase. The group quotes World Bank numbers saying that 300 million rural Chinese lack access to safe drinking water. By some estimates, 30 million environmental refugees will flee water-stressed areas by 2020 in China.

Brahma Chellaney, an Indian professor and author of a recent book on Asia’s water challenges, notes that China and India alone have 37 percent of the world’s population but only 10.8 percent of the water. Water, in other words, easily could exacerbate the tensions between the world’s two most populous countries – and potentially even lead to conflict. China’s claims to the Mekong River have already angered downstream neighbors such as Vietnam. Using the water it has more efficiently would go a long way toward preventing these disputes from occurring.

China’s leaders in recent years have started to recognize the seriousness of the country’s water problems. There is a growing recognition that massive water projects – whether it is the Three Gorges Dam or the South-North Water Transfer Project, are unlikely to solve fundamental problems. Singapore shows how strong political leadership and a national commitment, coupled with good price signals and an emphasis on innovative technology, can pay big dividends.

Singapore is a small, dense city-state, with virtually no agriculture. Agriculture is the big user of water, typically 80 percent or more in most countries, though it is lower in China. China’s top four farming provinces – Hebei, Shandong, Henan and Jiangsu – have renewable water resources per person on a par with Oman and Syria. Again, a variety of innovative solutions, including drip-irrigation can dramatically reduce water use.

For too long the environment was seen as a luxury that Asia could not afford. Clean water is no luxury.

Originally published in Caixin