Choke Point: China -- Escalating Confrontation Between Water Scarcity and Energy Demand Has Global Implications

Water scarcity, rapid economic growth, and soaring energy demand are forming a tightening noose that could choke off China's modernization.
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Water scarcity, rapid economic growth, and soaring energy demand are forming a tightening noose that could choke off China's modernization.

Writes my colleague Keith Schneider in the first installment of the new report, Choke Point: China, from Circle of Blue:

Underlying China's new standing in the world, like a tectonic fault line, is an increasingly fierce competition between energy and water that threatens to upend China's progress.

Simply put, say Chinese authorities and government reports, China's demand for energy, particularly for coal, is outpacing its freshwater supply.

The 12-part Choke Point: China series presents powerful evidence of the fierce contest between growth, water, and fuel that is virtually certain to grow more dire over the next decade. The project is produced in partnership with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars China Environment Forum.

Tight supplies of fresh water are nothing new in a nation where 80 percent of the rainfall and snowmelt occurs in the south, while just 20 percent of the moisture occurs in the mostly desert regions of the north and west. What's new is that China's surging economic growth is prompting the expanding industrial sector, which consumes 70 percent of the nation's energy, to call on the government to tap new energy supplies, particularly the enormous reserves of coal in the dry north.

The problem, scholars and government officials told us, is that there is not enough water to mine, process, and consume those reserves and still develop the modern cities and manufacturing centers that China envisions for the region. "Water shortage is the most important challenge to China right now, the biggest problem for future growth," said Wang Yahua, deputy director of the Center for China Study at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "It's a puzzle that the country has to solve."

The consequences of diminishing water reserves and rising energy demand have been a special focus of our attention for more than a year. In 2010, in our Choke Point: U.S. series, Circle of Blue found that rising energy demand and diminishing freshwater reserves are two trends moving in opposing directions across America. Moreover, the speed and force of the confrontation is occurring in the places where growth is highest and water resources are under the most stress -- California, the Southwest, the Rocky Mountain West, and the Southeast.

Stripped to its essence, China's globally significant choke point is caused by three converging trends:

  • Production and consumption of coal--the largest industrial consumer of water--has tripled since 2000. Government analysts project that China's energy companies will need to increase coal production by 30 percent by 2020.

  • Fresh water needed for mining, processing, and consuming coal accounts for the largest share of China's industrial water use, a fifth of all the water consumed nationally. Though national conservation policies have helped to limit increases, water consumption nevertheless has climbed to record highs.
  • China's total water resource, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, has dropped 13 percent since the start of the century. In other words China's water supply is 350 billion cubic meters (93 trillion gallons) less than it was at the start of the century. That's as much water lost to China each year as flows through the mouth of the Mississippi River in nine months. Chinese climatologists and hydrologists attribute much of the drop to climate change, which is disrupting patterns of rain and snowfall.
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    Choke Point: China, though, is not necessarily a story of doom.

    We found a powerful narrative in China in two parts, and never before told: First is how effectively the national and provincial governments enacted and enforced a range of water conservation and efficiency measures that enabled China to progress as far as it has.

    Second is that despite the extensive efforts to conserve water, and to develop water-sipping alternatives like wind and solar energy, China still faces an enormous projected shortfall of water this decade to its energy-rich northern and western provinces. How government and industry leaders respond to this critical and unyielding choke point forms the central story line of the next era of China's unfolding development.

    Photograph © Aaron Jaffe/Circle of Blue

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