The Price for Self-Sufficiency: water resources in China

Crand Canal of China

China’s new canal stretches over 1,200km (750 miles) from the Yangzi river north to the capital, Beijing. The new channel is only part of the world’s biggest water-diversion scheme. More than 300,000 people have been kicked out to make way for the channel and the expansion of a reservoir in central China that will feed it. But the government is in a hurry, and has paid their complaints little heed.

China’s leaders see the so-called South-North Water Diversion Project, which has already cost tens of billions of dollars, as crucial to solving a water problem that threatens the country’s development and stability. Grain-growing areas around Beijing have about as much water per person as such arid countries as Niger and Eritrea. Overuse has caused thousands of rivers to disappear. The amount of water available is diminishing fast as the water table drops and rivers dry up; what little is left is often too polluted even for industrial use. The World Bank has said that China’s water crisis costs the country more than 2% of GDP, mostly because of damage to health. T

Yet China’s water problem will remain unsolved. The canal is the second leg of the diversion project; the first, which opened last year in eastern China, brings water from the south along the route of the old Grand Canal, built 1,400 years ago, to the northern plain. Neither will prove more than temporary palliatives as demand continues to soar and pollution remains widespread. China’s water crisis cannot be tackled by showy mega-projects. Misguided policy is as much to blame as a mismatch in supply between the water-rich south and the arid north. A new approach to water management, rather than more concrete, is needed.

The solution is simple: China needs to price its water properly.  The Maoist obsession with food self-sufficiency compounds the problem. The arid northern plain, home to 200m people, produces water-hungry crops such as wheat and corn. Nearly 70% of water consumed in the area is used for agriculture. It is time for China to abandon autarkic thinking and import more food.

China’s water crisis: Grand new canals, Economist, Sept. 27, 2014

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