China’s Down to the Last Drop

The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China

China’s effort to pump water from the Yangtze basin to the arid and heavily populated north has been stalled for years among mounting concerns about the plan’s ecological, financial, and political impact. The city of Tianjin, a coastal port near the capital, Beijing, has instead turned to seawater desalination as an alternative to the so-called South–North Water Diversion Scheme. It’s a modest solution. Tianjin has water resources of 3.56 billion cubic meters, outstripped each year by demand. But solving China’s water crisis may lie beyond large-scale engineering projects like the $62 billion scheme.

In northern China, the disparity between water supply and demand is evident. The heavily polluted Yellow River, Beijing’s principle source of water, accounts for 2 percent of the country’s runoff yet irrigates 15 percent of the crops and supplies water to 140 million people, about 12 percent of the population. In 2008, the Xinhua news agency reported that four billion tonnes of industrial waste and sewage were discharged into the river system, leaving 83 percent of the water too contaminated to drink without treatment. Yet the need for water is insatiable. The accumulated overuse of water in Beijing, Tianjin, and the Hebei area of northern China is estimated at nine billion cubic meters. Water tables are falling and lakes are evaporating.

International environmental groups say the focus should be on reducing demand rather than boosting supply. “Transferring water from the Yangtze tributaries to the thirsty plains of northern China may well lead to environmental collapse of the Han river, the Three Gorges reservoir, and the Yangtze delta,” said Peter Bosshard of International Rivers. “To resolve its water crisis, China needs to phase out thirsty industries and agricultural crops in the drought-prone north and replace them with more environmentally sound practices.”1