China’s Water Scarcity Aggravated by Shrinking Wetlands

China’s wetlands have shrunk by nearly 9 percent in recent years, and the loss could continue if the government doesn't intervene. Officials from China's State Forestry Administration (SFA) told reporters on Monday that 340 000 square kilometers of wetlands, an area the size of the Netherlands, has disappeared since 2003.

The loss of wetlands is not only a blow to the flora and fauna that thrive in the critical habitat, but also to the Chinese population, which already faces increasing competition between agriculture, energy and development.

According to a report in Reuters, the officials said the loss was due to a combination of agricultural needs, large infrastructure projects, and climate change,  In particular, Zhang Yongli, vice director of the SFA, told reporters on Monday that the wetland loss due to infrastructure projects has increased tenfold in the past decade.

Northern China has the most acute water shortages. Nearly half of China’s population lives in the north, but it has only 14 percent of the water. Across the entire country, 85 percent of water is used by agriculture and industry, according to the nonprofit China Water Risk.

About 70 percent the nation's electric power comes from coal-fired generators that require massive amounts of water to operate. And the needs of the energy industry are only expected to increase. World Resources Institute (WRI) reported that China has plans for 363 new coal-fired power plants that will all require water for thermal cooling. Although new coal plants require less water than older plants, they still require more water than natural gas combined cycle plants, solar PV, or wind power. About half of the proposed plants are in areas of high or extremely high water stress, according to WRI.

The story of China’s shrinking wetlands has been ongoing. A 2012 study [PDF] found that China lost 23 percent of its freshwater marshes and 51 percent of its coastal wetlands over the previous 60 years.

One of the issues is adequate enforcement of safeguards for the wetlands. According to Reuters, 9 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) was earmarked for wetland protection between 2005 and 2010, but only 38 percent of those funds were actually allocated. For the period beginning in 2011 and ending in 2015, that figure has risen to 12.9 billion yuan.

China is not without water; it has the world’s fifth largest store of freshwater, according to the Brookings Institution. However, that is not a lot when split amongst more than a billion people—especially taking into consideration that much of the water is in the sparsely populated southwest, rather than the bustling north.

To meet the rising demand, says the Brookings Institution, the Government has plans for a water transfer project from the south to the north—despite various technical and humanitarian challenges. In 2010, the government also drew three red lines to establish “clear and binding limits” on water usage and to increase agricultural efficiency by 60 percent in specific regions. But for wetlands, the Forestry Administration's Zhang told reporters, China still lacks a strong national policy.

"Current regulations and rules have some clauses on wetland protection, but most are in fragments and disorganized, far from meeting the need of our work,” Zhang told ECNS. “Provisions for investigation and supervision of land use, the punishment for lawbreakers and better performance of International conventions are still nearly blank. Thus, a set of practical and binding regulations, especially for wetland protection, is badly needed."

Photo: Sean Gallagher/Getty Images

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