Reasons for water scarcity in Northern China

First of these factors – a natural cause – has been argued to be the irregular spatial distribution of the entire country’s water resources (Jiang 3189). Whereas the need for water is mainly concentrated along the northern parts of the country, most of the country’s water resources are to the southern parts (Jiang 3189). For instance, the population in the northern parts makes up 45.2 percent of the nation’s population but the water resources accounts for only 19.1 percent of China’s water resources (Jiang 3190). Such disparity has been the source of the low per capita levels noted earlier. Compounding the crisis however has been the “continued over exploitation of ground water” (Xia 197). Following numerous droughts in the region such as the one that occurred in 1972; the exploitation of ground water resources was hastened since the available surface water was inadequate to support the increasing human activities in the region (Xia 197). Xia (197) for instance notes that currently, the usage of water in the one of the river Basins – Hai River – already surpasses that deemed to be reasonable in international water standards by approximately 50 percent. Such over use has resulted into an imbalance between the water resources supply and demand in the region with the demand commanding far higher control.

Spatial distribution is not however the sole reason for the crisis; rapid economic growth and urbanization is for instance what has lead to a high population in the region. The rise in population and growth of industries increased the demand for water in a region whose resources were already unfavorable (Jiang 3190). This factor has especially negatively impacted on the water resources since the   country’s growth has mainly been through “extensive but inefficient use of natural resources” (Jiang 3190). The urbanization trend has thus impacted on the water resource in two folds. First has been the growth of population in the urban areas thus creating additional demand for the already strained water resources (Jiang 3190). Secondly the establishment of more industries and extensive irrigation schemes has lead to over exploitation of surface water with a resultant decrease in the ground water table levels (Lohmar and Hansen 4). Though these factors are hard to control, what has aggravated the water crisis in North China has been ineffective resource management approaches.

Water resource management approaches in China have been advanced to be poor despite the rising water scarcity issues. Jiang (3192) for instance notes that rather than promoting water use efficiency in the country, the approach to solving the crisis has been increasing engineering projects to meet the increasing socio-economic requirements for water resources. With restrictions to demand being minimal; the growth of industries that require substantial water for their operations in a region without adequate water resources has been the general trend (Jiang 3191). This trend has lead to increased exploitation of underground water resources resulting into low water table levels (Changming and Jingjie 265). Such trend is further promoted by low restrictions to exploitation of underground water with physical limits being largely non-existent (Wang et al., qtd. by Jiang 3191). With such a mode of management more industries have developed in these regions further aggravating the already existing demand and supply imbalance.

Secondly, water resource management approaches in China are impeded by an ineffective institutional system. The involvement of multiple government agencies in the institutional setup is for instance advanced to hamper effective coordination hence cooperation in implementing resource management projects (Jiang 3190). This is exemplified by the responsibility of controlling water pollution being rested with “the ministry of environmental protection (MEP)”, whereas that for “water resources planning … designating water functional zones for different uses and establishing corresponding water quality standards” being the domain of the ministry of water resources [MWR] (Jiang 3191). Such a set up implies that efforts to manage and conserve water resources are intertwined between two different entities with separate operating principles. Without an efficient coordination mechanism between the two institutions not only would the approaches to effective water management be impeded but also the administrative costs needed for their implementation would be augmented.

The institutional inefficiencies are aggravated by a weak system of water rights. Jiang (3192) observes that having “clearly defined, legally enforceable water rights can provide incentives to improve water use efficiency.” In china in contrast with such propositions, water management is through a delegated system from the state through MWR to local government offices and commissions set up in the river basin regions (Jiang 3191). Though with time the Chinese government has enacted a water law and developed a system through which water withdraw is regulated; the system is lacking in its completeness and monitoring since it only applies to surface water and lacks a clear definition of the area that is charged with its compliance (Jiang 3192). Lack of such a system has curtailed the degree to which effective inadequate water pricing methods could be applied. In accordance to the laws of demand and supply such prices could have easily been implied from the existing demand in the market. Such then would effectively curtail the demand levels by encouraging efficient use of available water. The experience in China however is that water prices have historically been set from the top echelons in the political administration rather than through the market forces (Jiang 3192). This has lead to continuous lower pricing levels than those that are required to motivate water- saving behavior (Zhang et al., qtd in Jiang 3192). China’s water scarcity problems in the Northern parts thus seem to be aggravated more by lack of appropriate conservation policies than the geographical disadvantages of the region. With the global clamor to reduce environmental impacts of human activities being championed more aggressively; the success of China agricultural sector could be dependent on the government’s efforts to conserve the water resources in the North.

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