Water Scarcity in China: Urbanization, Food, and Energy

Tuesday, October 8, 2013 1:51

Over the last couple of days there have been a couple of stories about water in China, and the fact that it is/ will be China’s primary limit to growth. As with many stories, they do not have the time to get into the nitty gritty or to present the problem in a way that is visually tangible, so I wanted to upload a quick post with a couple of my own thoughts.

First, take a look at the image above, which was supplied by a friend (who used publicly available information) that shows how water is used in China, and offers a glimpse into the future of China’s water usage. For me, the power of this image is that while China’s per capita water footprint (just like any footprint) is one that is respectable when compared to a western country that is actually NOT the narrative that is important. The narrative that is important to follow is that (1) China’s URBAN footprints are vastly different than the average and that (2) china’s aggregate footprint in 2030 will look more like today’s URBAN footprint.

With that context in mind, there are several contributing factors that I feel are important when looking at urbanization, water, and “scarcity”.

1) China’s agricultural sector consumes the largest amount of water (on aggregate) in china, which is true for many countries, but for China there are three areas that I feel are often overlooked in the average article on water scarcity in China:

- In keeping farmers happy, China’s leaders have long held agriculture inputs (seed, fertilizer, water, etc) artificially low. Which is to say that water, on the farm is cheap, and while planners are making increases in the urban centers (finally), prices on the farm are staying put. A case where the socio-economic pressure of rioting farms has won out over the water crisis that Beijing understands to be very real

- China loses somewhere between 40 and 60% of its crops between the field to the table, and while there has been some attention to consumer food waste, the real issue is that for every kilo of food wasted multiples of liters of water are in effect wasted.

- As urban residents demand more meat, more water inefficient crops (corn vs. spinach) are being planted to feed animals. Second to that, as china’s fields lose diversity, and the land degrades, more chemicals will need to be applied to ensure the crop and maintain yields.

2) Urban water demand is industrial because energy producers require large amounts of water to cool their equipment. In Shanghai, the energy sector accounts for 70% of industrial water use, which means that 40-45% of Shanghai’s entire water consumption is in the energy sector. A sector that is growth 20-30% per year as China urbanizes, and will need to grow by 400% by 2030 for China to surpass U.S GDP levels..

The biggest contributing factor to this is that China’s built environments are very energy inefficient, a problem that will only continue to grow exponentially as its cities (120+ over 1 million by 2025) continue to grow in size and number. For as much as energy is an air pollution problem for China, it is also needs to be recognized as a water problem as well. One that few recognize as clearly as much as they would a 400PMI day in Beijing, but one that needs to be considered as demand and supply side energy solutions are rolled out.

Which brings me to a final point.

For as scarce as China’s natural water resources are, the economic inefficiencies are a far greater issue that will only grow as urbanization continues and the country surpasses US GDP levels.

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