Although China’s freshwater supply is vast in absolute terms, its average per capita annual supply is about one-quarter of the global average. With annual precipitation unevenly distributed so that a majority of the country’s precipitation and groundwater are concentrated in the south, the North China plain – the cultural and historical core of China – has become become increasingly stressed in the wake of decades of rapid urbanization, industrialization, and economic growth. One third of China’s population is currently concentrated in the relatively dry basins of north China, so that not only are the surface waters drying up, but the water tables below are being drained as well.
Nonetheless, aggressive irrigation of agricultural land in northern China has continued and following Mao Zedong’s proposal that stated “the south has plenty of water and the north lacks it, so if possible why not borrow some?” China has moved forward with the South-North Water Transfer Project, which is now close to finishing phase one.
Current conservation measures have had little impact on limiting water use in relation to the growing demands for drinking water, irrigation, energy production and other reuse so China is addressing the issue simply through environmental ingenuity. Following the stimulus to economic growth that followed China’s accession to the World trade Organization, and a budget plan with a predicted cost of more than $60 billion, the Project is planning on linking China’s four main rivers and diverting the water along three canals to the north. However, this project is surrounded by controversy as a result of the social, economic and environmental implications that involve not only the certainly too low price tag, but the human displacement required and the pumping of water up and over the Himalayan Mountains.
Wilson Center: The South-North Water Transfer Project
United Nations Publication: Long-Distance Water Transfer
Columbia University: China’s South-North Water Transfer Project
New York Times Op-Ed: “China’s Massive Water Problem”