Water Scarcity, Agriculture, and Energy Are Focus of ‘Choke Point: China Part II’December 5, 2012 By Carolyn Lamere
With the start of part two of Circle of Blue and the China Environment Forum’s Choke Point: China series, the focus has broadened from looking more narrowly at water scarcity and energy to including the effects of food security and pollution in China too.
“From an environmental point of view,” said Circle of Blue Senior Editor Keith Schneider, the question is, “can a nation that big, operating at such a scale maintain its sustainability?”
Schneider previewed the series’ second run of stories last month and was joined by fellow Circle of Blue journalist Nadya Ivanova in a new video to talk about their findings.
“Most of the focus is on water pollution as a health issue; we wanted to look at water pollution as a water supply issue,” explained Ivanova. Although much of the water in China’s rivers is “unsuitable for any use,” it is often used in agriculture anyway. “One of the reasons this water is still being used by farmers is because, in many areas of northern China, which suffer from extreme scarcity, there is no other water that can be used,” she said.
Northern China is home to much of the country’s agriculture, but only 20 percent of its water. And water scarcity is driven not only by agriculture but also by the growth of cities like Beijing and development of energy resources like coal – the mining, consumption, and burning of which accounts for one fifth of China’s water consumption. Both coal production and intensive agriculture contribute to pollution, but farming may be the bigger culprit with runoff from pesticides and fertilizer making water unusable in some places.
Ivanova suggested that this water scarcity “might crash into [China’s] food security issue.” Indeed, 20 percent of China’s grain is produced in desert provinces which require significant irrigation. But China’s large population and increasing taste for meat mean that these lands will continue to be counted on as major producers and will thus require substantial amounts of water.
She also noted that the relationship between water scarcity and energy production has serious implications for China’s economy. Demand for energy has grown in parallel with the economy at an enormous rate and Schneider noted that most of the new power comes from coal. “They’re growing so fast, and they do have the coal, and they have big coal companies [that are] state-owned, so they’re going to develop the coal,” he said.
What water scarcity will mean for the coal sector, global carbon emissions, food security, and environmental degradation is uncertain. Schneider discussed the importance of China’s decisions on this front in their first Choke Point: China video: “It’s going to have global implications because anything China does today has implications for every nation on Earth, including the United States.”
Building on the reporting already completed, the Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum is partnering with the Chinese non-government organization Greenovation Hub to convene a group of U.S. and Chinese experts next year to highlight specific policy and research priorities for China in addressing its pressing water-energy-food confrontations.
Sources: Circle of Blue.