Lao Zhang vividly describes the beauty of Lake Hong during his boyhood: “The water was clear and full of fish and aquatic plants, and birds were singing around the lake,” he recalls. “And the ducks and geese were in such great quantity that they almost blocked the sun when they flew off.”

Zhang says the situation today is vastly different. The once-serene lake is now crowded by fish farms and fishing nets, with fish and plants disappearing. “The water has become polluted,” he says, “and now over half of Lake Hong villagers suffer from all kinds of intestinal diseases. Buying medicine has become a huge burden.”

Zhang and his fellow villagers are not alone. Qiu Baoxing, vice minister of construction, was quoted last year in China Daily as saying the country is struggling to deal with the world’s worst water crisis, brought about by run-away pollution, mismanagement of resources, widespread drought, and a too-rapid economic expansion. “[China] is facing a water crisis more severe and urgent than any other country in the world,” he said.

Although China has the largest reserves of fresh water in the world, its 1.3 billion population also makes the country the second lowest in terms of per-capita water holdings of any country. Experts say that per-capita water availability in China is 2,200 cubic meters — just about 25% of the world average. And the supply is falling fast. The central government says the peak water shortage will occur in 2030, when the population rises to 1.6 billion and China will have just 1,760 cubic meters of water per person–a level the UN defines as the “threshold of concern.”

Meanwhile, pollution and the lack of sewage treatment facilities mean the situation is continuing to deteriorate. Government statistics show that 70% of the country’s lakes and waterways are polluted. The situation in rural areas is particularly worrisome. Earlier this year, a vice minister for water resources said that some 360 million rural residents lacked clean drinking water–one reason for the high cancer rates in areas along many rivers. The pollution is so bad in one part of north Guangdong province that locals have begun referring to the area as “cancer villages.”

Statistics show that close to one million wells have been dug over the past 10 years, which has seriously lowered water tables. Ma Jun, an environmental consultant and the author of China’s Water Crisis, says that water tables in major northern cities, such as Beijing, have sunk one meter a year for the past 50 years, a rate that he says can’t be recharged in a timely manner.

A Threat to the Yangzi

The Yangzi River, which winds its way through 11 provinces, is China’s largest waterway. The river basin is home to 30% of China’s population and 40% of China’s freshwater resources. Seventy percent of China’s rice and 40% of its grain are the direct result of the river, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in China. However, this waterway also faces some serious problems, not least the fact that hundreds of natural lakes, which were once crucial for fish spawning and feeding and for natural flood retention, have been disconnected from the river due to land reclamation for agriculture and urban development.

“About 40% of China’s GDP originates in the Yangzi River basin, and so economically it’s incredibly important,” says Dermot O’Gorman, country representative of WWF China. “So we see the threat to the Yangzi not only having a negative impact on local communities but a long-term detrimental effect on Chinese society and the economy.”

In late May, Chinese scientists made a frank and rare assessment of the condition of China’s longest waterway, saying it was on the verge of dying within five years. Chinese experts said that the river, the victim of industrial waste, agricultural runoff, sewage, and shipping discharges, absorbed more than 40% of the nation’s waste water, approximately 25 billion tons a year, and that 80% of this was untreated before being pumped into the river, threatening the drinking water of 186 cities along its banks.

“Many officials think pollution is nothing for the Yangzi, which has a large water flow and a certain capability of self-cleaning” the official Xinhua News Agency quoted Yuan Aiguo, a professor with the China University of Geosciences, as saying, “but the pollution is actually very serious.” The agency added that some experts say the river is “cancerous.”

According to the report, just 31% of the water in the Yangzi, the world’s third longest river, is first- or second-class quality, with 35% under third class. Yuan said that if measures were not taken, 70% of the water would be below third class within three to five years. Liu Guangzhao, another scientist, said that if 70% of the water fell to fourth or fifth class, many hydrophytic plant species would disappear “and the river would become a dead river.”

A report last year by Greenpeace made a dire assessment of China’s second longest waterway–the Yellow River–arguing that because of climate change “the whole [river] is put at risk.” The report went on to say: “The vital source of the Yellow River’s life–its river basin–is dying; and with it the water-holding capacity of the most important source of water into the Yellow River is drying up.”

The authors put the blame on global warming, arguing that temperatures had risen, while rainfall had fallen sharply. Meanwhile, glacier retreat and the reduced area generating runoff are undermining the hydrological circulation in the Yellow River source region. Decreased rainfall means that lakes and wetlands, which maintain the most abundant vegetation and animal resources in the region, are shrinking rapidly. And with higher temperatures increasing the amount and speed of evaporation, even more water is disappearing from the lakes. Between 1986 and 2000, the total lake area in the region fell by 5.3%, and one area that used to have 4,077 lakes has seen 3,000 disappear. During the past 15 years, tributaries in the river basin shrank by 9% and the bog and wetland area declined by 13.4%. And the effects are far-reaching, affecting the water resources in the middle and lower reaches of the river. Xinhua reported last year that most of the Yellow River, the “cradle of Chinese civilization,” was so polluted that its water was unsafe to drink or even take a dip in.

An “Imminent Crisis”

Similar conditions for other rivers and lakes are being reported throughout China. Compounding the problem is the unequal distribution of water resources. The north, with six percent of China’s total water resources, supports one third of the population. Officials see the answer to the water crisis in the water-rich south of the country. The first phase of the ambitious South-North Water Diversion Project is expected to cost nearly $61.7 billion by 2050, when it’s completed. However, some experts question its efficacy. “The amount of water that would be diverted is very limited and can’t really solve the problem,” says Ma Jun. Furthermore, drought, which once mainly occurred in northern China, is now becoming increasingly common in the south.

Some analysts argue that water is too cheap. Prices are 70-80% lower than in countries with sufficient water per capita, which means local pricing doesn’t reflect the scarcity of supply. According to a report by Tina Butler of, titled “China’s Imminent Water Crisis,”, most water in China is purchased at 40% below actual cost. In Beijing, for example, water prices remained at around 3.7 yuan (US$0.46) per ton for several years, and although this is the most expensive price among Chinese cities, it’s still just 1.8% of the disposable income of the average Chinese citizen, and well below the World Bank’s suggested 5% for developing countries.

With water so cheaply priced, there’s little incentive for users–citizens, factories or farms–to conserve or improve efficiency. China expends approximately 7-15 times more water to turn out one unit of GDP than developed countries. Agriculture consumes 65% of China’s water, with about 55-60% of this wasted, so reducing rural use would contribute to solving the problem.

However, the government is reluctant to increase prices for fear of a negative public reaction. Water prices have risen slightly, but this has not served as a serious deterrent to water use because of rapidly rising incomes.

The water crisis is becoming a major bottleneck to economic development. Butler’s report also pointed out that the reduction of flows on China’s biggest rivers resulting from water shortages has forced hydroelectric power plants to cut much needed power production. The report adds that many of China’s smelters, paper mills and petrochemical plants “can no longer expect the huge amounts of water they require for operation.” Butler quotes experts who say that water supply interruptions can be expected in six industries: electric power, iron and steel, petroleum production and refining, chemicals, paper making and textile dyeing.

Experts say that the pollution of the Yellow River alone costs China between $1.39 billion and $1.89 billion each year. And this does not take into account the amounts that are being spent each year to clean up the river or the public health costs of treating the large numbers of people who consume toxic water each year. Many farmlands near the Yellow River have been irrigated with polluted water, resulting in health costs estimated as high as $330 million annually. Multiply these figures by the number of waterways and lakes in China.

There is now a growing concern that the water shortages and other problems could lead to social unrest, especially in areas that will be forced to sacrifice their own water–and livelihoods–for the benefit of key urban areas. Over the past two years, there have been several violent protests around China related to disputes over water issues.

Protection vs. Development

The government has been taking steps to deal with the problem. China’s five-year economic plans make regular mention of the water crisis, laws are proclaimed by the National People’s Congress, and officials discuss the problem in major speeches. But progress has been slow, the protection of water and the environment falling victim to proponents of development.

Pan Yue, the outspoken deputy minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration, told a group of visiting American newspaper editors recently that central government regulators lack adequate muscle to enforce the rules, and that some of the top leaders have failed to understand the need to protect the environment. New rules and regulations to control industrial pollution have had little impact, as regional enforcement has been weak; local officials are reluctant to increase the economic burden of local manufacturers by forcing them to install treatment facilities, fearing this could slow down growth.

This point was emphasized in a recent report in Caijing magazine on the deterioration of Baiyangdian, a wetland area in Hebei province near the city of Baoding, whose water has turned black and fetid.


The report said that Baiyangdian, which means, “white ocean of lakes,” was once a pristine marshland teeming with aquatic life. However, beginning in the 1980s, “drought, diversion of feeder rivers and streams, reservoir construction and sprawling industrialization have combined to contaminate the area,” with the wetland area shrinking by more than a third in the last 50 years. “Many domestic enterprises choose not to treat waste but pay the minimal fines required by law, rather than shoulder the significantly higher cost of building and maintaining a waste treatment plant,” the report said. Caijing went on to quote analysts who said that to save Baiyangdian, local policy-makers “need to reassess the authority they have given to economic development and strengthen anti-pollution measures.”


Calls for Attention

Ma Jun, who recently set up The Institute of Citizens and the Environment, says that despite progress being made, the situation continues to deteriorate in the face of massive industrialization and urbanization throughout the country. “The pollution is beyond the capacity of rivers to handle,” he said. “We need to do a lot more. Government orders and investment alone cannot solve the problem.” He says that new policies have been adopted and that the government is putting more emphasis on conservation and preservation, “but we still have a long way to go to translate words into actions.”

“We’re not talking about reversing the trend, but keeping it from getting worse,” says Ma. “It’s a big challenge.”

Lai Yun, a water researcher with Greenpeace, says that more progress is now being made. “I don’t think it’s too late to stop a major catastrophe,” he says, “but of course the problem must be dealt with as soon as possible.”

International NGOs have been active in the campaign to fight China’s water crisis. WWF China has been actively involved in water issues in the Yangzi River area. In 2002, the WWF and HSBC established a five-year partnership to restore wetlands in the central Yangzi area. In the 1980s, according to the WWF, there were 4,088 lakes in the Central Yangzi region that were connected with the Yangzi and formed a complex wetland network. Some 3,000 kilometers of dykes cut off the links between the remaining lakes and the river, resulting in flooding, loss of freshwater resources and biodiversity, and a decrease in water quality. A WWF project with local governments and fishermen has made gains: The effort opened dyke gates in four Central Yangzi lakes last year, restored their natural links with the river’s main waters and improved the quality of the water.

In a 3.3 square kilometer demonstration site on Lake Hong area, the home of Lao Zhang, the WWF worked with fishermen to develop alternative sustainable livelihoods, including eco-fisheries, eco-tourism and the growth of aquatic vegetables, taking pressure off of the lake. In less than a year, the water quality has improved and the lake water is drinkable once more. “The demonstration site has almost been restored to the condition when I was young,” says Zhang, who wears a WWF button with a panda logo on his shirt. He adds that areas outside the WWF China demonstration site remain in poor condition.

“It’s a huge river and a huge problem, but I’m optimistic because there are a lot of good examples of how people are working with local governments, communities, NGOs and the private sector,” says O’Gorman.

Ma says that one of the biggest achievements has been the increased public awareness of the importance of protecting the environment. “That gives us a lot of hope,” he says. “Before, the mindset was to conquer and harness rivers. Now the government mindset has changed, and it realizes the need to take care of the ecosystem and restore harmony with mother nature.”

“When you look at the situation, you usually feel pessimistic,” says Ma. But then he adds, “You have to be optimistic. The alternative is not acceptable.”