A large and multifaceted crisis is unfolding in China. The world's most important rapidly-developing economy is running out of clean fresh water. As things get worse, this crisis will lead to an increase in global food prices, to a slowdown in China's rate of GDP growth and possibly to a new set of tensions with its neighbors, especially Russia, which, in Siberia, controls the only large supply of fresh water near enough to meet China's needs.
China is home to about 20% of the world's population and about 7% of the world's water, Traditionally, the correct management of water for transportation, irrigation and flood control was one of the ways the Chinese people could determine if the Emperor and his dynasty had the "Mandate of Heaven" or not. With the "Mandate of Heaven," the leadership had the legitimacy and the authority to rule; without it, the people assumed that political trouble and a change of rulers was on its way.
William McNeil in his 1964 study of world history, "The Rise of the West," described the "Mandate of Heaven ": "Tien (Heaven) conferred a mandate upon whoever was appointed to exercise political authority, but the mandate might be withdrawn at any time in the same mysterious way in which it had been initially conferred." McNeil went on to explain that "The emperor's failure in either respect [that is, respecting tradition and providing good government] might bring disaster to the country -- flood or famine or pestilence -- and in extreme cases might even provoke Heaven to withdraw its mandate and overthrow the emperor's dynasty forever."
Beginning around 600 BC, successful Chinese rulers invested in gigantic irrigation and canal building projects in order to increase the Empire's wealth and thereby its military power.
China's climate and geography, especially in northern China, require extensive irrigation, and equally extensive flood control systems. In the past, failures of either system, or of both, has produced famines and floods that have killed millions.
Karl Wittfogal the German born Sinologist whose 1957 work, "Oriental Despotism," on the political implications of what he called "hydraulic civilization," wrote: " In Imperial China every commoner family was expected to provide labor for hydraulic and other public services." The power to organize effectively the labor of millions of Chinese peasants to build fortifications and roads as well as hydraulic systems is what gave ancient Chinese civilization its amazing ability to survive for centuries, while other civilizations rose and fell.
As China's population grew, and as its requirements for food became greater and more varied, keeping its people fed at prices that both its people and the government can afford has become, and rightly so, a government obsession.
In a study published in 2000, Xinoying Ma and Leonard Ortolano in " Environmental Regulation in China," stated that "Many of China's rivers, lakes and estuaries are badly fouled, for some rivers such as the Huai and the Hai, more than 50% of the river basin's surface waters are in the lowest category for Chinese waters, Class V. These waters are so contaminated they an be employed only for industrial cools and a few other purposes." There is no sign that the situation has significantly improved.
Today, China's people are suffering from both an overall lack of water and a most definite shortage of clean water. The problem seems to be getting worse: according to a report cited in the Economist magazine, over 43% of the rivers monitored by the Chinese government have water that is "unsuitable for human contact." It is also claimed that underground water sources for 90% of China's cities are contaminated.
This winter China's largest freshwater lake has all but dried up, due to an extraordinary drought made worse by the effects of the giant Three Gorges dam on the Yangtse River. For a relatively poor nation such as China, the combined management of energy requirements and water are exceptionally difficult to manage especially when the legitimacy of the government is at stake.
While the Chinese authorities may attempt to alleviate these problems by importing, on a limited basis, clean water technology from Israel, the US and elsewhere, the sheer size of the need for clean water will overwhelm current efforts . According to Wa and Ortolano, "Damage tied to water pollution has been extensive. Many hectares of farmland have been taken out of production because of fouling by agrochemicals and heavily contaminated waste water used to irrigate crops."
The core of the dilemma facing China's leaders is that the old methods described by Wittfogal, which mobilized millions of peasants to perform a few weeks or months of unpaid labor on irrigation and flood control systems every year, no longer work. What China needs is new infrastructure to provide clean water to the cities, new irrigation methods and a huge effort to insure that pollution regulations are respected. It is this last requirement that is the most difficult.
One partial solution to the problem of the agrochemical contamination of rivers is the adoption of Precision Agriculture, sometimes called GPS farming, which works by combining a detailed geological and soil moisture map of a farm with a GPS system mounted on farm machinery such as a tractor. The farmer uses this technique to spread only as much fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides as are required in each field, and no more. In the US, GPS farming has reduced the use of agrochemicals by about a third. China is actively working to adapt this technology to their local requirements, but it will be years before GPS farming can have an impact on China's water pollution problem.
Nations that aspire to a higher standard of living also find that their citizens are not willing to sacrifice clean air and clean water to achieve large scale economic growth. Unlike the USSR, China has hoped to rise to global power without building the kind of useless socialist industrial might that doomed Russian Communism. Not only did Russia's factories manage to produce products that were actually worth less than the raw materials that went into them, but they left a legacy of pollution that to this day helps keep Russia in a second-class industrial status.
China has no choice but to invest heavily in clean water technology. The questions outside observers must ask are: Will it be enough, and will it happen in time to prevent a substantial loss of China's capacity to feed itself ? Food shortages and food price increases in China are already having an effect on global food prices; if things get worse in China the whole world could feel its pain.