The Issue


Population Growth and Urbanization:

China's population is just over 1.3 billion and continues to grow. As the country develops and grows economically, many people are migrating to cities and demanding higher quality of living. Denser populations and industrialization are also causing water pollution problems. Experts estimate that in the next 15 years, a shortage of clean water in China will create up to 30 million "environmental refugees."

Some Chinese governmental officials realize that water demand is growing unsustainably. One solution would be to put a higher price on water, to discourage over-use. In December 2010, Beijing announced 8% water hikes.

A recent study by UCSD graduate student Anthony Liu suggests that the central government can impose better incentive structures on regional governments to improve water sewage treatment. Read his paper here.

Location of Water Sources:

Much of the country's freshwater is located in Southern China, which has a higher rainfall than the north. The south is also home to the large Yangtze River. However, the majority of the population lives in Northern China.

China has planned a "South to North Water Transfer Project" to divert water from the Yangtze up north to the Yellow River. This involves the controversial construction of many dams and aqueducts across the country. The project is also controversial because some non-governmental resarchers have cited many issues with the plan, including geologist Yong Yang. Yang claims that the low end of the Yangtze's entire annual flow is around 7 billion cubic meters, which is less than the 8-9 billion cubic meters that the government hopes to divert annually in the future.


Over two thirds of China's water use is for agriculture, however, up to 45% of that water never reaches farmers due to evaporation and seepage.

This is one area where the government has a good potential for water conservation. By simply investing in repairing/rebuilding water infrastructure, much fresh water can be conserved or used for productive purposes.

Climate Change:

A 2009 China Geological Survey Institute study showed that Yangtze source glaciers receded 196 kilometers, or almost 16%, since 1971. The rate of the glaciers melting is likely to increase with climate change. This causes the Yangtze to swell in the short run, but in the long run, the annual runoff will be greatly diminished.

There is no easy to solution or policy fix to this issue. The only hope to mitigate the glacier melt is global commitment to climate change amelioration.