The Yellow River basin in China – Part 4
This is the fourth and final part of my 5000-word essay (researched and written in March 2011) on the water resource problems being encountered within the Yellow River catchment of northern China as a consequence of ongoing climate change. Having looked at the problems being experienced within different parts of the catchment, I now begin to consider whether and how these may be solved. (A situation update is appended after the list of References.)
The problem (of demand exceeding the capacity of the groundwater and surface water system to supply) is far from being solved. In 2009, Benewick and Donald used data supplied by the Chinese Government to conclude that 50% of China’s population lives in the arid northern half of the country but is reliant on 15% of the available water (2009: 60). They also indicated that 3 large-scale water transfer projects were either under construction or consideration; and that the first of these (from the mouth of the Yangtze to the North China Plain) should now be operational (2009: 61).
However, WANG et al have studied the Yellow River in some detail; including interviewing farmers in numerous villages throughout Hebei, Henan and Ningxia provinces (2008: 278). Although they acknowledge that the Chinese Government has considered over abstraction of groundwater as a serious problem since at least 1996 (2008: 277), along with many other analysts, they believe the water shortages in northern China are due to slow governmental policy response and/or implementation and/or enforcement (2008: 293).
Thus, WANG et al concluded that the Chinese Government…“has not created the institutions and infrastructure that will provide the incentives required to make farmers save water. We believe a sustainable environment needs to be built on effective water pricing and water rights policies… Although this is a huge job, we believe it will be more effective and much cheaper than…” the proposed south-to-north transfer projects (2008: 293). N.B. The second of these is proposed to take water 1200km from the Three Gorges Dam to Beijing by 2030; and the third to transfer water from the upper reaches of the Yangtze (Tibet Autonomous Region) to those of the Yellow River (in Qinghai Province) by 2050 (Benewick and Donald 2009: 61).
In 2008, the Communist Party of China (CPC) published its Climate Change White Paper, which included the admission that climate change “…arises out of development, and thus should be solved along with development” (CPC 2008).
Therefore, although China is no less wedded to the idea that economic growth is the best means available to eradicate poverty – and may not be much closer to decoupling economic development from environmental degradation – than the rest of us, it is determined to reduce the carbon intensity of its greenhouse gas emissions (i.e. emissions per unit GDP). In essence, faced with the fact that China must feed 20% of the world’s population using 7% of the world’s agricultural land (Benewick and Donald 2009: 43), whilst watching the latter being reduced by desertification etc., the CPC has realised that climate change is a potential threat to its own survival; and is therefore determined to pursue (as per the CCWP) both mitigation and adaptation strategies.
The Yellow River basin is the ancient birthplace of Chinese civilisation; and home to a significant proportion of the current population. It is the source of a large amount of industrial and agricultural enterprise; and the river is also used as a major source of hydroelectric power generation.
The length of the river and the size of the catchment result in a wide range of climatic and vegetation zones, ranging from the high-altitude glaciated valleys of Qinghai Province to the west, to the North China Plain; with the River passing through the very arid Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (between Yinchuan and Hohot) on its way to the sea. As such, although average rainfall across the catchment is nearly 500mm/yr, actual rainfall ranges from in excess of 750mm/yr in the south; to less than 150mm/yr in the north.
The Yellow River basin includes very significant thicknesses of sedimentary rocks and superficial deposits, which form a complex hydrogeological system capable of storing very large volumes of good quality groundwater (where it falls and can be recharged without being evaporated).
With regard to mineral resources, the Yellow River basin contains more than 25% of China’s oil and more than 50% of its coal reserves and, consequently, it is the focus of a considerable amount of industrial activity. As such, the demand for water is very high and, despite the size of the Yellow River, not all of this can be met from surface water (in part due to climatic variations along its length). Therefore, very large volumes of groundwater are also abstracted to meet the demands of both urbanised industrial and domestic water supply. Therefore, in addition to a general excess of demand over supply, pollution of both surface water and groundwater are also serious problems.
Although the Chinese Government has been aware of the problems for many years, existing policy and legislation appear to have had little positive effect. Furthermore, although very considerable sums of money have been spent on large scale water transfer projects, there remains a significant possibility that the real solution lies in better demand management, including market-based solutions to maximise the efficiency of all water use.
In conjunction with continuing improvements in the effectiveness/enforcement of legislation designed to encourage polluter responsibility and/or pollution prevention, it is therefore to be hoped that, in the face of continuing concern over the potential impacts of ongoing climate change, all of this may yet prevent potentially-catastrophic unsustainable use of available water resources.
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HAN, Zhantao et al., (2009), ‘Groundwater balance and circulation in key areas of the Yellow River basin’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.59-86.
IPCC (2007), AR4 Summary for Policymakers. Geneva: IPCC.
MATSUOKA, Norikazu et al., (2009), ‘Permafrost and hydrology in the source area of the Yellow River’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.39-57.
MENGXIONG, Chen (2000), ‘Distribution and exploitation of groundwater resources in China’, in MENGXIONG, Chen and ZUHUANG, Cai, (eds), Groundwater resources and the related environ-hydrogeologic problems in China. Beijing: Seismological Press, pp.28-37.
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In May 2011, the Communist Party of China (CPC) published its 12th Five Year Plan, which re-affirms the principle (first alluded to in the 2008 White Paper) that climate change “arises out of development, and should thus be solved along with development”. Therefore, after decades of insisting that economic development must not be impeded by environmental concerns, the CPC has now officially conceded that climate change is a real problem; that humans are its cause; and that doing nothing is not an option. It must be hoped that the rest of the World will soon do the same; especially since China will probably be one of the last places on Earth to actually stop burning fossil fuels. What we most certainly cannot afford to do is to continue pointing the finger at China and saying “Well if they can burn them then so will I”. Such a childish response does not help anyone; and will guarantee unintended ecocide becomes a reality. In short, it may well be humanity’s epitaph.