EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures

Chapter 8. Reversing China’s Harvest Decline: Water Shortages Spreading

Throughout the northern half of China water tables are falling, wells are going dry, and rivers are being drained dry before they reach the sea. The irrigation water prospect in the North China Plain, which produces half of China’s wheat and a third of its corn, is one of the keys to China’s long-term food security. 28

Farmers in this region rely on three rivers and two aquifers for irrigation water. The three rivers in the region, from north to south, are the Hai, Huang (Yellow), and Huai. The North China Plain has two aquifers, one shallow and one deep. 29

The Yellow River, the second largest river in China after the Yangtze, is often referred to as the cradle of Chinese civilization. Originating on the Tibetan Plateau, it flows through eight provinces en route to the sea. Unfortunately, in many recent years it has been drained dry, failing to reach the sea during the dry season. 30

The Hai river basin, the northernmost of the three, includes two of China’s largest cities—Beijing and Tianjin, with 14 million and 11 million people, respectively. The whole basin, which contains 100 million people, is now in chronic deficit. The Sandia National Laboratory, which has modeled the water balance in China’s rivers, concluded that water withdrawals in the Hai River basin of 55 billion tons in 2000 exceeded the sustainable supply of 34 billion tons by 21 billion tons. This deficit is made up by groundwater mining. When the aquifer is depleted, the water supply in the basin will drop sharply. 31

Urbanization is directly affecting the water balance in the Hai River basin. When villagers migrate to cities, where they have indoor plumbing, water consumption typically multiplies fourfold. Finding jobs in industry for the millions of new workers moving into the region imposes additional demands on the dwindling water supply. With competition for water between farmers, cities, and industry intensifying, irrigated agriculture in the Hai River basin may largely disappear by 2010. 32

Demands on Huai river water, the southernmost of the three rivers, comes from both Anhui and Jiangsu provinces. Like the other two rivers, it also is sometimes drained dry, failing to make it to the sea. Originating in the mountains to the immediate west of the North China Plain, the Huai is a key source of water for farmers in both Anhui and Jiangsu provinces. 33

The North China Plain depends heavily on two aquifers—a shallow aquifer that is replenishable and a deep fossil aquifer, which is not replenishable. Farmers, cities, and industries are pumping from both. Where the shallow aquifer has been depleted, the amount of water pumped is necessarily reduced to the amount that is recharged. 34

In many areas now, the deep aquifer is the principal source of water, but it too is being depleted. When this finally happens, pumping will come to an end. He Qingcheng, head of the groundwater monitoring team in the Geological Environmental Monitoring Institute, observes that with depletion of the deep aquifer, the region is losing its last water reserve—its only safety cushion. 35

Water shortages will shape the evolution of China’s economy in fundamental ways. The gravity of the water situation in the North China Plain can be seen in the frenzy of well drilling in recent years. At the end of 1996, the five provinces of the North China Plain—Heibei, Henan, Shandong, and the city provinces of Beijing and Tianjin—had 3.6 million wells, the bulk of them for irrigation. A detailed study of the situation in 1997 showed 99,900 wells abandoned as they ran dry. Partly to compensate, some 221,900 new wells were drilled. The desperate quest for water in China is evident as well drillers go to ever greater depths, often using technology borrowed from the oil drilling industry. 36

Concerns about the tightening water situation are reflected in a World Bank report: “Anecdotal evidence suggests that deep wells [drilled] around Beijing now have to reach 1,000 meters (more than half a mile) to tap fresh water, adding dramatically to the cost of supply.” 37

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28. World Bank, China: Agenda for Water Sector Strategy for North China (Washington, DC: 2001); Sandra Postel, Last Oasis (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997), p. 36–37; share of China’s grain harvest from the North China Plain based on Hong Yang and Alexander Zehnder, “China’s Regional Water Scarcity and Implications for Grain Supply and Trade,” Environment and Planning A, vol. 33 (2001), and on USDA, op. cit. note 1.

29. Michael Ma, “Northern Cities Sinking as Water Table Falls,” South China Morning Post, 11 August 2001.

30. Lester R. Brown and Brian Halweil, “China’s Water Shortages Could Shake World Food Security,” World Watch, July/August 1998, p. 11.

31. Population of Beijing and Tianjin from China Internet Information Center, op. cit. note 14; Hai River basin from Dennis Engi, China Infrastructure Initiative, Sandia National Laboratory, at www.igaia.sandia.gov/igaia/China/China.html.

32. Author’s estimate.

33. Ma Jun, China’s Water Crisis (Norwalk, CT: EastBridge, 2004), pp. 148–56.

34. Ma, op. cit. note 29.

35. Ibid.

36. Yang and Zehnder, op. cit. note 28, p. 85.

37. World Bank, op. cit. note 28, p. vii.


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