China vignettes 2 – Water in China

One key challenge for China in general is water. Its green revolution, that has seen its per capita food production rise more than three fold since the 1960s, has been achieved by major inputs of fertilizer, irrigation, plastic film, and chemicals. While water is relatively abundant in some parts of China such as the South – although there is serious pollution – it is not in much of China, with ground water levels falling rapidly in recent years in many areas where it is used for irrigation.

The Eastern Central area, which includes Beijing, has about a third of the population, GDP and industrial output but a bit less than 8% of the water resources, while the southwest has over 20% but less than 1% of GDP and industrial output. The southeast has significant water resources but significant water pollution (see map). There is excessive water abstraction from many rivers leading to their being too little water to dilute polluted flow. Pollution arises from a range of sources – point sources such as industry and non-point sources such as run off from agriculture – leading to concerns about drinking water safety.

Indeed, it is not just water safety people have concerns about as the first question asked of me after my lecture was about the safety of food.


Although there is a major programme on water pollution and control there are complex legal and institutional structures that make tackling the issues difficult. These include:

  • Lack of coherence of law and regulation enforcement in different regions
  • Conflicting interests at different levels of the administration
  • Insufficient authority and resources available to institutions to carry out their duties

There is also a failure to understand the true costs of current practices and pollution. About 35% of waste water is not treated at all. If there was fuller environmental cost accounting leading to a green GDP measure, it would show that in 2004, for example, financial loss caused by pollution was 511.8 billion yuan ($66.3 billion), or 3.05% of the nation’s economy. Moreover, the cost of environmental degradation and resource depletion have for the last decade ranged from 8 to 12% of GDP growth.

The government has established a Special Programme on Water Pollution Control and Treatment (2008-2020) Strategy & Policy of Water Pollution Control and Management

  • Financing & investment
  • Tariff
  • Pollutant discharge permit and trading
  • Compensation
  • Public participation
  • Information disclosure

There is a well-established legistaltive framework with many national laws, quality standards for discharges and water quality monitoring standards but the problem is said to lie with their implementation and enforcement.

But enough of the big picture and the figures, next post it’s time to go out from the campus and visit.

Next: From city to village for vegetables


About geofftansey

I curate the Food Systems Academy, a free, on-line, open education resource to transform our food systems. I am also a member of the Food Ethics Council and chaired the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty, which reported in 2015.
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1 Response to China vignettes 2 – Water in China

  1. Pingback: On the food road | Global Food Security blog

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