Friday, December 14, 2007

China Nears the Wall

There's not much you can do without water. No morning shower or orange juice and coffee at breakfast. No bread for toast, no bacon or eggs. No milk for your cereal. No cereal. All of those things depend on an adequate supply of water, lots of water.

The Chinese are struggling with a very real water crisis. Although they have 7% of the world's freshwater supply a lot of it winds up very polluted and contaminated. China's growing industrial base is placing heavy pressures on both water resources and water quality.

The country's leaders now say that, by 2030, China will consume its entire water supply. Every last drop will be needed to keep the nation going. Every lake, every river, every aquifer. The trouble is, you never manage to get all your water, can't be done. You can't wring out soil or pump out every crevice. You can't even really empty a river or a lake or an aquifer, not entirely. And if you did, imagine what would happen to the land itself? Wildlife would go extinct, forests would die, soil would erode, and on and on and on.

So what the Chinese are really saying is that by 2030, China's demand for freshwater will equal its total water resource, meaning that it will exceed its supply. That figure, however, leaves out a couple of other factors. It doesn't account for seasonal variances, like the drought that now afflicts parts of the country. It doesn't reflect changes in precipitation, where too much rainfall arrives at the wrong time resulting in flooding that then flows into the sea.

What the Chinese also have to contend with is their reliance on glacier-fed rivers. Like India, a key source of China's freshwater comes from Himalayan glaciers. And how have they been doing lately? A separate report out of China today shows that the country's high glaciers in the western (Himalayan) region have shrunk 18% over the past five years. From Reuters:

The shrinkage was most evident in two areas in the far Western region of Xinjiang and in part of Tibet, the official Xinhua news agency said.

"The change of glaciers is in fact a manifestation of the pressure upon China's environment from global warming," it quoted Ding Yongjian, a Chinese Academy of Sciences research fellow, as saying.

"Global warming has led to an increase in the average temperature in the western area of China over the past few decades. This has caused the glacial shrinking, a thawing of frozen earth and worsening arid conditions."

It would be extremely shortsighted to shrug this off as China's problem, none of our business. China, which until recently was massively agrarian, sees itself as a victim of global warming it blames the West for creating. It may be overtaking the US as the number one GHG emitter now but that's 2007 and this problem has been building for a century or more.

China is an emerging economic superpower, it's also an emerging military power complete with advanced aircraft, missiles and a bluewater navy. As nations go, this is the type you least want to find itself facing destabilizing environmental pressures.

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