Earth & Conservation

Why China Is Running Out Of Water

80% of China's underground water is not suitable for drinking and many rivers are too polluted to touch. Will China run out of clean water?

A wave of recent reports from China make it clear that the country is now facing a water crisis of massive proportions.

As Jules Suzdaltsev explains in today's Seeker Daily report, industrialization and population growth have led to a core supply-and-demand issue in China. With a population of just under 1.5 billion people, the country has about 20 percent of the global population, but only about seven percent of the world's fresh water. Making matters worse, rapid industrial development in the last 50 years has led to fundamental changes in how China uses -- and pollutes -- its water.

According to statistics released in April by the Chinese government itself, more than 80 percent of the rural water supply in the country is now unsafe for drinking or bathing. A test of 2,103 underground wells revealed dangerous levels of contamination from industry and farming. More than half of China's rivers are too polluted to use as water sources, largely the result of industrial spills and chemical runoff from manufacturing facilities.

China's Yellow River, which played a crucial role in the country's radical industrialization, is now lined with literally thousands of petrochemical plants, leaving only 16 percent of it usable as a source for clean water. As a result, it's estimated that around one-quarter of the country's population -- about 300 million people -- drink contaminated water every day. Another report estimates that polluted water is responsible for 190 million illnesses each year.

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Then there are the purely geographical problems. More than 80 percent of the water that is available in China comes from sources in the southern areas of the country. Unfortunately, half the population and two-thirds of the farmland is in the north. Massive pipelines and canals have been built to even things out, but even those efforts have been hampered by recent droughts and the ongoing effects of climate change.

Today, more than one hundred metropolitan areas face severe water shortages and some, like the city of Lintao, have run completely dry. Experts fear that China's water crisis is so severe that it could lead to open conflict and even full-scale resource wars in the near future.

-- Glenn McDonald

Learn More:

The Economist: Desperate Measures

The Atlantic: China Has Launched the Largest Water-Pipeline Project in History

The Guardian: 100 Chinese cities face water crisis, says minister

National Geographic: Yellow River