China’s biggest environmental problem isn’t the air

Over the last year we’ve discussed the problem of air pollution nearly a dozen times, and while this is a pressing issue that effects hundreds of millions of people, there is a bigger environmental challenge facing China – water pollution. More specifically, there is a shortage of water that can be used. You can tell it is a serious problem, given the frank discussion of the issue in the People’s Daily, and that unlike smoking or public defecation, it has its own public service campaign.

A recent article from People’s Daily highlights some of the problems (it’s worth reading the full thing):

  • UP to 40 percent of China’s rivers were seriously polluted last year after 75 billion tons of sewage and waste water was discharged into them
  • 20 percent of rivers were so polluted their water quality was rated too toxic even to come into contact with
  • nearly 300 million rural residents lack access to drinking water
  • The per capita of water resources is only 2,100 cubic meters annually, or about 28 percent of the world’s average
  • About two-thirds of Chinese cities are “water-needy”

Unlike air pollution, water shortages (caused partially by pollution and industry) disproportionaly effects the poor. For example, not only does a drought wipe out a family’s crop for the year, but often wipes out their entire savings. Without savings, medical bills and education move out of reach, which can set in motion a series of events that limits the family for years.

It’s also important to note that farmers are often left with few choices other than using the polluted water to save their crops. This results in vegetables with high levels of heavy metals. As reported in the documentary “The Warriors of Qiugang,” farmers admit that they sell these crops to outsiders fully aware of the danger they pose to the health of others.

Notice the correlation between rainfall and poverty stricken provinces.

A story related to Yunnan’s ongoing drought, which has effected over 3 million people, showed one family’s story:

“My family was so happy to see rain that we all ran out of the house to watch it,” said Zheng Guocheng, a tobacco planter in Yunnan’s Songming county.

The farmer told China Daily that his vegetable yield had been reduced by 30 percent compared with last year because of the drought.

“Now is a crucial time for growing tobacco. If rain had not fallen, we would have had to carry water to the fields.”

Economic losses caused by “weather related disasters” cost China nearly 3% of its GDP.

Fortunately, some action is being taken. In Ningxia water shortages were so frequent that people locked their wells. A recent investment of over 1 billion RMB though helped to bring drinking water to 200,000 rural residents. While this is progress, there are still over 500,000 rural inhabitants (out of 1.36 million in Ningxia) who lack basic access.

Furthermore, as more people access water in Ningxia, the water pressures down stream will only become more pressing.

The key will be improving efficiency in water usage. This could mean abandoning farmland in the most resource intensive regions and limiting mining operations that produce water pollution while using thousands of gallons. Interestingly enough, Han farmers in Xinjiang working to open new farmlands, and Han miners in Inner Mongolia digging for coal, have been the source of ethnic tensions in the last year.

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at China’s last ditch effort to save the north from desertification.

8 responses to “China’s biggest environmental problem isn’t the air”

  1. […] the original post here: China's biggest environmental problem isn't the air | Seeing Red in … ← Preventing Water Pollution, Essential, Life, Human Activity, Sewage […]

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  4. Chopstik says:

    Interesting that your post on fa piao generated so much commentary yet, IMHO, an issue that holds much greater impact to China as a whole seems to elicit so little comment. I think this is an issue that deserves far more attention and seems to elicit not nearly the response that it should. Where are those who are screaming about “climate change”?

    Personally, I fear that any action taken will be along the lines of “let’s do something drastic” to show that we care but will either have little impact or will have even more severe consequences than what is already happening.

    Regardless, thanks for bringing the subject up, Tom.

  5. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    I was thinking the same thing, Chopstik. Fa piao is hardly as important as this water pollution problem. The contaminated vegetables always is a concern when I visit China. But when I read Jonathan Watt’s book “When a Billion Chinese Jump” I realised just how huge this water issue is. Thanks for highlighting it, Tom.

  6. […] China’s biggest environmental problem isn’t the air ( […]

  7. […] You think we Chinese are “cheap bastards“? Well guess what son, we kinda have a reason. There is much poverty and hey, it’s already overpopulated and there is a lack of resources, and don’t forget about that pollution. […]

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