Examining Water Issues in China

Joshua Bray considers the scarcity of water resources in China and argues that China’s water crisis deserves greater recognition. This World Water Day 2018 blog highlights the need to address water scarcity issues through environmental protection and pollution reduction policy.

'Skyscrapers and Yangtze River. Chongqing , China'. Image sourced via Shutterstock, stock photo ID: 112029335.

China’s water crisis is frequently overshadowed by media reports of its chronic air pollution. However, in the face of continued population growth, unprecedented rates of urbanisation and a dramatic, climate-change-induced decline in rainfall across the north of the country since the 1950s, China’s limited water resources are arguably the major environmental constraint on further growth. To address this, there are hints of a GDP slow-down in order to prioritise environmental protection, an entire part of the 13th five year plan (Part X) was dedicated to ecosystems and the environment, and “Water Security” received its own Chapter (31) within Part VII (“modern infrastructure”) of the same document (Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, 2016).

To comprehend China’s water challenge, it helps to understand the issues of water scarcity and the uneven distribution of water resources per capita across China.  About two-thirds of China’s 660 cities1 face water shortages. The South East of the country holds reserves of approximately 2,300 m3/person/year (equivalent to most western consumption rates), but the population centres of Beijing, Henan, Shandong and Hebei towards the north of the country (with a combined population >250 million people), are amongst the most water stressed on the planet with less than 400m3/person/year – results comparable with countries of the Middle East2 and well below the threshold of “extreme water shortage” – 500m3/person/year.

In 2011, China’s urban population exceeded 50% for the first time in its history. Crossing this threshold marks an important step in the development of China’s export-led growth model over the past 20 years, which has been heavily reliant on the development of manufacturing, and will now turn to an uplift in consumption among its urban, middle class to sustain this growth. This growth model has seen both push factors (the absence of jobs in rural areas) and pull factors (an increase in available services) draw people into cities, and while this increase in urban population is linked to a rise in living standards, it is also strongly linked to an increase in water consumption and water pollution, which will further stress over-extracted, polluted waterways.

In addition to population pressures, polluting industries that have provided jobs for the new urban population, such as manufacturing, energy production and processing plants, have contributed to China’s water stress, with 50% of China’s existing fresh water resources contaminated by paper and pulp mills, agricultural residues and even degraded infrastructure (Hays, 2008). Attempts to improve water use in the past have been stymied by the assessment criteria for public officials. This system has rewarded economic growth and production, leading to a reluctance among local officials to enforce pollution penalties (e.g. from factories) if these are counter-productive to economic growth.

However, recent government policy changes promise a new approach in addressing the challenges of water quality and quantity on several fronts, including:

  • construction of new infrastructure, such as water diversion projects, and the construction of water recycling/treatment facilities; and
  • through legislation, which is aimed at driving efficiencies and reducing pollution in varying parts of the economy including agriculture, industry and urban areas (Ministery of Environmental Protection of the PRC, 2007).

The construction of new infrastructure to meet water needs continues a long list of engineering projects in the country with questionable social, economic and practical outcomes.  The biggest of these is the “south-north water transfer project” (SNWTP), which diverts water from the Yangtze’s sub-tropical and glacier-fed headwaters, to the over-populated, arid north of the country. The SNWTP commenced operation in 2014, spurred by the Huang He repeatedly running dry at the end of the 20th century, and the dramatic draw-down of groundwater tables that supply Beijing (Leavenworth, 2016). Nevertheless, the SNWTP will not be finalised until 2050. The project, with predicted costs of a staggering US$180 billion (8 times the cost of the Three Gorges Dam) has moved an estimated 1 billion cubic metres of water – more than 100 million Olympic swimming pool volumes – to date. China has also built over 130 desalination plants, expanded its water recycling program, and added to its 87,000 dams, the majority of which are used for largely inefficient irrigation projects – not power generation (Peng, 2011). But the government has realised that without major changes to water use, including implementation of prices mechanisms for agriculture, factories and households, water shortages will likely remain on the Huang He, and extend to the Yangtze.

Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party is not known for its pessimism, and there is hope of changed behaviours. The 12th five-year plan gave ministerial status to the State Environment Protection Authority, while in the 13th five-year plan, the government outlined expectations that water use per unit of GDP to fall by 23% between 2016 and 2020, through pollution taxes, price incentives to improve efficient water use, clearer delegation of responsibility to “River Chiefs” for maintaining river health and an acknowledgement of the holistic approach required to make water use more sustainable across the country (Xu. 2017).

Here, it is important to acknowledge the political side to these water issues, which are fertile ground for demonstrations in China (Gilbert, 2012). Meeting the water demands of its population is an easy way for the Communist Party to head off insurgent political movements. Rather than silencing these protests, the River Chiefs now facilitate a direct line of public participation, which has assisted in targeting the most polluted waterways.

In addition, the emergence of a market economy has allowed the development of water quality standards and discharge and emission trading schemes. The government has piloted water efficiency trails in Hebei, which were successful in reducing consumption of water by up to 30%, and encouraged industry to commence recycling projects. The program is now being expanded to nine larger, water-stressed cities (Ministry of Finance PRC, 2017).

The scarcity of China’s water resources deserves greater recognition when discussing the country’s environmental challenges. The economic, social and political implications of these limitations pose substantial challenges to China’s administration, which has been acknowledged in recent Five Year Plans.  While current water use remains unsustainable, the rectification of large inefficiencies across all sectors of the economy, combined with more astutely applied laws and standards give cause for optimism for the sustainability of China’s water use in the face of ongoing urbanisation and population growth.

World Water Day promotes the UN Sustainable Development Goal 6, and commits the world to ensuring that everyone has access to safe water by 2030, and includes targets on protecting the natural environment and reducing pollution. For more information about World Water Day, click here


Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. (2016). The 13th Five-Year Plan for Economic and Social Development of the People’s Republic of China (2016–2020). Central Compilation & Translation Press.
Jeffery Hays. (2008). Water Pollution in China. Facts and Details (website). Access here.
Jennie Peng. (2011). Market Report: Developing Desalination in China. Water and Wastewater International, Jan 1, 2011. Access here.
Ministry of Environmental Protection of the Peoples Republic of China. (2007). Circular of the State Council on Urban Water Supply, Saving Water and Water Pollution Control. Issued by State Council, November 7 2000. Access here.
Ministry of Finance of the People’s Republic of China. (2017). Report on the Reform of Water Resources Tax Pilot Project in Hebei Province. Press Center of Hebei Provincial Department of Finance, September 1, 2017. Access here.
Natasha Gilbert. (2012). Green protests on the rise in China: Environmental groups use momentum to push for reforms. Nature News, 14 August 2012. Accessed here.
Stuart Leavenworth. (2016). Beijing has fallen: China’s capital sinking by 11cm a year, satellite study warns. The Guardian (Australian Edition), June 24 2017. Access here.
Yuanchao Xu. (2017). China’s River Chiefs: Who Are They?  China Water Risk, October 17, 2017. Access here.


1. A city has a population of < 250,000 people.
2. Hebei has an average water resource of just 300 m3/person/year, while Beijing survives on just 150m3/person/year.

Joshua Bray is a PhD candidate at the School of Geosciences, University of Sydney. His interests lie at the intersection of economic, social and environmental issues. Josh is currently undertaking research as part of a collaborative project between the University of Sydney, University of Lampung (Indonesia), the Indonesian Coffee and Cocoa Research Institute (ICCRI) and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). Josh’s research examines the use of voluntary sustainability standards, like certification, that are currently being used in the coffee and cocoa value chains in Indonesia.

The research is important given the challenges facing the production of these commodities in Indonesia. These challenges include the ongoing low living standards among producer communities, and the increasingly unfavourable coffee growing conditions generated by climate change. This is particularly pertinent to Indonesia, which is the world’s third largest producer of coffee, while southern Sumatra, consisting of the provinces of South Sumatra and Lampung, is the world’s second biggest site of Robusta coffee production, after Vietnam. Josh holds a Bachelor of Land & Water Science (Hons) and a Masters of Development Studies. Josh also works as an environmental consultant, specialising in the investigation and remediation of contaminated lands, acid sulfate soils and mining sites.