Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Thursday, September 27, 2007


Below is an article from the International Herald Tribune, regarding a looming water shortage in China. For the full article, click on the title of this post.

Though water is drying up, a Chinese metropolis booms
By Jim Yardley
Thursday, September 27, 2007
Click here to find out more!

SHIJIAZHUANG, China: Hundreds of feet below ground, this provincial capital of more than two million people is steadily running out of water. The water table is sinking fast. Municipal wells have already drained two-thirds of the local groundwater.

Above ground, this city in the North China Plain is having a party. Economic growth topped 11 percent last year. Population is rising. One new upscale housing development is advertising waterfront property on lakes filled with pumped groundwater. Another half-built complex, the Arc de Royal, is rising above one of the lowest points in the city's water table.

"People who are buying apartments aren't thinking about whether there will be water in the future," said Zhang Zhongmin, who has tried for the past 20 years to raise public awareness about the city's dire water situation.

For three decades, water has been indispensable in sustaining the rollicking economic expansion that has made China a world power. Now, China's galloping, often wasteful style of economic growth is pushing the country toward a water crisis. Water pollution is rampant nationwide, while water scarcity has worsened severely in north China - even as demand keeps rising everywhere.

China is scouring the world for oil, natural gas and minerals to keep its economic machine humming. But trade deals cannot solve water problems. Water usage in China has quintupled since 1949, and leaders will increasingly face tough political choices as cities, industry and farming compete for a finite and unbalanced water supply.

One example is grain. The Communist Party, leery of depending on imports to feed the country, has long insisted on grain self-sufficiency. But growing so much grain consumes huge amounts of underground water in the North China Plain, which produces half the country's wheat. Some scientists say farming in the rapidly urbanizing region should be restricted to protect endangered aquifers. Yet doing so could threaten the livelihoods of millions of farmers and cause a spike in international grain prices.

For the Communist Party, the immediate challenge is the prosaic task of forcing the world's most dynamic economy to conserve and protect clean water. Water pollution is so widespread that regulators say a major incident occurs every other day. Municipal and industrial dumping has left broad sections of many rivers "unfit for human contact."

Cities like Beijing and Tianjin have shown progress on water conservation, but China's economy continues to emphasize growth. Industry in China uses 3 to 10 times more water, depending on the product, than industries in developed nations.

"We have to now focus on conservation," said Ma Jun, a prominent environmentalist and author of "China's Water Crisis." "We don't have much extra water resources. We have the same resources and much bigger pressures from growth."

In the past, the Communist Party has reflexively turned to engineering projects to address water problems, and now it is reaching back to one of Mao's unrealized schemes: the $62 billion South-to-North Water Transfer Project to funnel 45 billion cubic meters, or 12 trillion gallons, northward every year along three routes from the Yangtze River basin, where water is more abundant. The project, if fully built, would be completed in 2050. The eastern and central lines are already under construction; the western line, the most controversial because of environmental concerns, remains in the planning stages.

The North China Plain undoubtedly needs any water it can get. An economic powerhouse with more than 200 million residents, the region has limited rainfall and depends on groundwater for 60 percent of its water supply. Other countries have aquifers that are being drained to dangerously low levels, like Yemen, India, Mexico and the United States. But scientists say the aquifers below the North China Plain may be drained within 30 years.

"There's no uncertainty," said Richard Evans, a hydrologist who has worked in China for two decades and has served as a consultant to the World Bank and China's Ministry of Water Resources. "The rate of decline is very clear, very well documented. They will run out of groundwater if the current rate continues."

Outside Shijiazhuang, construction crews are working on the transfer project's central line, which will provide the city with infusions of water on the way to the final destination, Beijing. For many of the engineers and workers, the job carries a patriotic gloss.

Yet while many scientists agree that the project will provide an important influx of water, they also say it will not be a cure-all. No one knows how much clean water the project will deliver; pollution problems are already arising on the eastern line. Cities and industry will be the beneficiaries of the new water, but the impact on farming is limited. Water deficits are expected to remain.

"Many people are asking the question: What can they do?" said Zheng Chunmiao, a leading international groundwater expert. "They just cannot continue with current practices. They have to find a way to bring the problem under control."
An ecological fall

On a drizzly, polluted morning last April, Wang Baosheng steered his Chinese-made sport utility vehicle out of a shopping center on the west side of Beijing for a three-hour southbound commute that became a tour of the water crisis pressing down on the North China Plain.

Wang travels several times a month to Shijiazhuang, where he is chief engineer overseeing construction of five kilometers, or three miles, of the central line of the water transfer project. A light rain splattered the windshield, and Wang recited a Chinese proverb about the preciousness of spring showers for farmers. He also noticed one dead river after another as his SUV glided over dusty, barren riverbeds: the Yongding, the Yishui, the Xia and, finally, the Hutuo.

"You see all these streams with bridges, but there is no water," Wang said.

A century or so ago, the North China Plain was a healthy ecosystem, scientists say. Farmers digging wells could strike water within two and a half meters, or eight feet. Streams and creeks meandered through the region. Swamps, natural springs and wetlands were common.

Today, the region, comparable in size to New Mexico, is parched. Roughly five-sixths of the wetlands have dried up, according to one study. Scientists say that most natural streams or creeks have disappeared. Several rivers that once were navigable are now mostly dust and brush. The largest natural freshwater lake in northern China, Lake Baiyangdian, is steadily contracting and besieged with pollution.

What happened?

The list includes misguided policies, unintended consequences, a population explosion, climate change and, most of all, relentless economic growth. In 1963, a flood paralyzed the region, prompting Mao to construct a flood control system of dams, reservoirs and concrete spillways. Flood control improved but the ecological balance was altered as the dams began choking off rivers that once flowed eastward into the North China Plain.

The new reservoirs gradually became major water suppliers for growing cities like Shijiazhuang. Farmers, the region's biggest water users, began depending almost exclusively on wells. Rainfall steadily declined in what some scientists now believe is a consequence of climate change.

Before, farmers had compensated for the region's limited annual rainfall by planting only three crops every two years. But underground water seemed limitless and government policies pushed for higher production, so farmers began planting a second annual crop, usually winter wheat, which requires a lot of water.

By the 1970s, studies show, the water table was already falling. Then Mao's death and the introduction of market-driven economic reforms spurred a farming renaissance. Production soared, and rural incomes rose. The water table kept falling, further drying out wetlands and rivers.

Around 1900, Shijiazhuang was a collection of farming villages. By 1950, the population had reached 335,000. This year, the city has roughly 2.3 million people with a metropolitan population of nine million.

More people meant more demand for water, and the city now heavily pumps groundwater. The water table is falling more than a meter a year. Today, some city wells must descend 200 meters to get clean water. In the deepest drilling areas, steep downward funnels have formed in the water table that are known as "cones of depression."

Groundwater quality also has worsened. Wastewater, often untreated, is now routinely dumped into rivers and open channels. Zheng, the water specialist, said studies showed that roughly three-quarters of the region's entire aquifer system is now suffering some level of contamination.

"There will be no sustainable development in the future if there is no groundwater supply," said Liu Changming, a leading Chinese hydrology expert and a senior scholar at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Seeking a water miracle

Three decades ago, when Deng Xiaoping shifted China from Maoist ideology and fixated the country on economic growth, a generation of technocrats gradually took power and began rebuilding a country that ideology had almost destroyed. Today, the entire top leadership of the Communist Party - including Hu Jintao, China's president and party chief - were trained as engineers.

Though not members of the political elite, Wang Baosheng, the engineer on the water transfer project, and his colleague Yang Guangjie are of the same background. This spring, at the construction site outside Shijiazhuang, bulldozers clawed at a V-shaped cut in the dirt while teams of workers in blue jumpsuits and orange hard hats smoothed wet concrete over a channel that will be almost as wide as a football field.

Yang, the project manager. compares the transfer project to the damming of the Colorado River in the western United States and the water diversion system devised for Southern California early in the 20th century.

"I've been to the Hoover Dam, and I really admire the people who built that," Yang said. "At the time, they were making a huge contribution to the development of their country."

"Maybe we are like America in the 1920s and 1930s," Yang added. "We're building the country."

China's disadvantage, compared with the United States, is that it has a smaller water supply yet almost five times as many people. China has about 7 percent of the world's water resources and roughly 20 percent of its population. It also has a severe regional water imbalance, with about four-fifths of the water supply in the south.

Mao's vision of borrowing water from the Yangtze for the north had an almost profound simplicity, but engineers and scientists spent decades debating the project before the government approved it, partly out of desperation, in 2002. Today, demand is far greater in the north, and water quality has badly deteriorated in the south. Roughly 41 percent of China's wastewater is now dumped in the Yangtze, raising concerns that siphoning away clean water northward will exacerbate pollution problems in the south.

The upper reaches of the central line are expected to be finished in time to provide water to Beijing for the Olympic Games next year. Evans, the World Bank consultant, called the complete project "essential" but added that success would depend on avoiding waste and efficiently distributing the water.

Liu, the scholar and hydrologist, said that farming would get none of the new water and that cities and industry must quickly improve wastewater treatment. Otherwise, he said, cities will use the new water to dump more polluted wastewater. Currently, Shijiazhuang dumps untreated wastewater into a canal that local farmers use to irrigate fields.

For years, Chinese officials thought irrigation efficiency was the answer for reversing groundwater declines. Eloise Kendy, a hydrology expert with The Nature Conservancy who has studied the North China Plain, said that farmers had made improvements but that the water table had kept sinking. Kendy said the spilled water previously considered "wasted" had actually soaked into the soil and recharged the aquifer. Efficiency erased that recharge. Farmers also used efficiency gains to irrigate more land.

Kendy said scientists had discovered that the water table was dropping because of water lost by evaporation and transpiration from the soil, plants and leaves. The sum of this lost water, combined with low annual rainfall, is not enough to meet demand.

Farmers have no choice. They drill deeper.


Colin Wee said...

Did you choose to have the kanji character for 'forever' as an image for this post to describe the spirit required for survival?


Rick Matz said...

It's the kanji for water.

Rick Matz said...

I had the wrong kanji up there. There was a one stroke difference. I corrected it.

Anonymous said...

I don't know kanji, but I understood perfectly what you two are talking about! It's the exact same character in Chinese for both words.

Colin Wee said...

Shang - In mandarin Yong Yuan is forever where Shui is water. The two kanji are different. However, the character for 'forever' is a beautiful one still very pertinent for martial artists and the post. :-) Colin

Rick Matz said...

The difference between the character I originally posted, and the current one, is a dot over the central vertical stroke. I didn't notice it when I posted it.

Eternity still works as an image though. Colin is right about that.