Geography Reference
In-Depth Information
Although water may be a “natural” resource, its allocation and use are inherently polit-
ical, involving questions of power and justice. To this extent, water management is also the
story of the evolution of human social institutions, especially markets and states, which al-
locate and control water, often by turning it into a commodity. The water crisis is therefore
as much a social phenomenon as it is a biophysical one. As Donahue and Johnston note in
the conclusion to their volume, “Crises involving water scarcity and water quality are as
much a product of cultural values, social contexts, economic activities, and power relation-
ships as they are a result of biophysical forces and conditions” (1998:345).
After decades of rapid economic growth, China currently faces a water crisis. In an un-
alloyed assessment of the issues, Gleick, who heads the Pacific Institute and produces a
biennial report on global water assessment, concludes: “China's water resources are over-
allocated, inefficiently used, and grossly polluted by human and industrial wastes, to the
point that vast stretches of rivers are dead and dying, lakes are cesspools of waste, ground-
water aquifers are over-pumped and unsustainably consumed, uncounted species of aquatic
life have been driven to extinction, and direct adverse impacts on both human health and
ecosystem health are widespread and growing” (2009:79).
The crisis relates to both water quantity and water quality. In terms of quantity, China's
total renewable water resources and its land area are similar to those of the contiguous Un-
ited States. However, because of its huge population, the annual per capita water availab-
ility in China is only 2,138 cubic meters per person as compared to 10,231 cubic meters
per person in the United States (Gleick 2009:84). The distribution of water is also a con-
stant problem: it is most readily available in the monsoon-prone southeast, while the heav-
ily populated north suffers from chronic water shortages. The Yellow River, which has sus-
tained Han Chinese settlements for thousands of years, dried up for the first time in 1972.
In 1997, the river failed to reach the sea for 226 days, leaving a 700-kilometer stretch of
riverbed dry (Molle et al. 2007:589).
It is a cruel irony that while the northern regions face chronic water shortages and the
depletion of aquifers, many areas in the south must cope with the opposite problem: regu-
lar flood events during the monsoon season that cause loss of life, economic hardship, and
ecological damage. The massive South-North Water-Transfer Project (Nan Shui Bei Diao
Gongcheng), officially approved in 2002 and currently under way, is the epitome of hard-
path solutions to this problem. The plan entails an interbasin transfer of massive amounts
of water from the Yangtze to the Yellow, involving three routes to be constructed in dif-
ferent phases: the Eastern Route, consisting of a 1,200-kilometer-long canal, portions of
which trace the path of the historic Grand Canal that connected Beijing with the port city
of Hangzhou; the Central Route, which originates on the Han River, a major tributary of
the Yangtze; and the Western Route, which would transfer water from the upper Yangtze
basin, both from the main stem and from major tributaries such as the Tongtian, Yalong,
and Dadu. Portions of the Eastern and Central Routes are currently under construction, but
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