Water "overdraft" threatens development, says UN
Despite China’s impressive progress in improving living conditions, the country and its people face huge challenges in securing a sustainable supply of clean water, according to UNDP’s Human Development Report for 2006.
China rose four places in UNDP’s annual Human Development Index this year, ranking 81st out of 175 countries listed. But the 2006 report, entitled Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis, points out that China’s per capita availability of water is only a third of the global average, and continued economic growth and climate change are intensifying pressure on the nation’s water supply.
The reports stresses that unequal distribution of water within the country makes the situation far more serious: 42% of China’s population, or 538 million people, in the northern provinces have access to only 14% of the country’s water. If northern China were counted as a separate country, its water availability—757 cubic metres per person—would be comparable to that of parts of North Africa: lower, for example, than the water resources of Morocco.
China’s economic boom poses a continued risk to the country’s waterways. The report highlights the 3-H basin of the Hai, Huai and Huang (Yellow) rivers, which accounts for less than 8% of national water resources but supplies nearly half of China’s population. Moreover, the State Environmental Protection Administration is quoted in the report as saying that more than 70% of the water in the 3-H river system is now too polluted for human use.
One illustration of serious pollution from human and industrial waste is that 16 cities with populations of more than half a million have no wastewater treatment facilities. Indeed, nationally less than 20% of municipal waste receives any treatment.
China also lags behind in sanitation coverage, which was 48% in 2004, the same as Nigeria and Papua New Guinea, but less than China’s neighbour, Vietnam, whose GDP per capita is only about half of China’s.
The report says that rapid economic growth has strained China’s water resources. Economic success has been maintained partly through a mounting ecological overdraft, with northern China at the epicentre of the crisis.
Continued industrial expansion also brings higher risks of industrial accidents like last year’s spill of toxic benzene into the Songhua River which flowed across the border into Russia.
The government of China has started to acknowledge the need to tackle unsustainable water use, and the report applauds recent improvements in water management, particularly highlighting the advances in meeting the needs of rural people.
Progress in sanitation in rural areas was lagging far behind that in urban areas until the mid-1990s, holding back advances in health. Since then, rural sanitation has been an integral part of the national health strategy.
“Provincial and county governments oversee plans for meeting targets set by government. Resources have been invested in developing and marketing sanitary latrines designed for rural areas. Uptake has been impressive, with rural sanitation coverage doubling in five years,” the report says.
Remaining challenges, according to Alessandra Tisot, Senior Deputy Resident Representative of UNDP in Beijing, are related less to access to water access than to water quality, compensation for damages and the sustainability of continued use.
“China is taking good steps to address these issues in line with the evolving global best practice. including new policies on community participation in decision making and more environmental impact assessments,” she says.
Climate change will exacerbate many water related problems, highlighting the global dimension of these issues, she adds. “China’s path will have a profound impact on the global future in access to clean water, and will in turn be affected by international choices,” she says.
The full report is available at http://hdr.undp.org/hdr2006/.
Report by Chang Tianle, November 24, 2006