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CSRlive Commentary

02.15.2011 - 04:05PM

Category: Sustainability

Choke Point: China - Confronting Water Scarcity and Energy Demand in the World's Fastest Growing Industrial Economy

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By Keith Schneider, Circle of Blue

Exploring an escalating confrontation over resources with global implications.

Water scarcity, rapid economic growth and soaring energy demand are forming a tightening noose that could choke off China's modernization.

Underlying China's new standing in the world, like a tectonic fault line, is an increasingly fierce competition between energy and water that threatens to upend China's progress. Simply put, say Chinese authorities and government reports, China's demand for energy, particularly for coal, is outpacing its freshwater supply.

In a dozen chapters - starting this week with updates posted weekly through April - Choke Point: China reports in text, photographs and interactive graphics the powerful evidence of the fierce contest between growth, water and fuel that is virtually certain to grow more dire over the next decade.

Tight supplies of fresh water are nothing new in a nation where 80 percent of the rainfall and snowmelt occurs in the south, while just 20 percent of the moisture occurs in the mostly desert regions of the north and west. What's new is China's surging economic growth is prompting the expanding industrial sector, which consumes 70 percent of the nation's energy, to call on the government to tap new energy supplies, particularly the enormous reserves of coal in the dry north.

The problem, scholars and government officials told us, is there is not enough water to mine, process and consume those reserves and still develop the modern cities and manufacturing centers China envisions for the region. "Water shortage is the most important challenge to China right now, the biggest problem for future growth," said Wang Yahua, deputy director of the Center for China Study at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "It's a puzzle that the country has to solve."

The consequences of diminishing water reserves and rising energy demand have been a special focus of our attention for more than a year. In 2010, in our Choke Point: U.S. series, Circle of Blue found rising energy demand and diminishing freshwater reserves are two trends moving in opposing directions across America. Moreover, the speed and force of the confrontation is occurring in the places where growth is highest and water resources are under the most stress - California, the Southwest, Rocky Mountain West, and Southeast.

Stripped to its essence, China's globally significant choke point is caused by three converging trends:

  • Production and consumption of coal - the largest industrial consumer of water - has tripled since 2000. Government analysts project China's energy companies will need to increase coal production by 30 percent by 2020.

  • Fresh water needed for mining, processing and consuming coal accounts for the largest share of China's industrial water use, a fifth of all the water consumed nationally. Though national conservation policies have helped to limit increases, water consumption, nevertheless, has climbed to record highs.

  • China's total water resource, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, has dropped 13 percent since the start of the century. In other words China's water supply is 350 billion cubic meters (93 trillion gallons) less than it was at the start of the century. That's as much water lost to China each year as flows through the mouth of the Mississippi River in nine months. Chinese climatologists and hydrologists attribute much of the drop to climate change, which is disrupting patterns of rain and snowfall.

Choke Point: China, though, is not necessarily a story of doom.

We found a powerful narrative in China in two parts, and never before told: first is how effectively national and provincial governments enacted and enforced a range of water conservation and efficiency measures that enabled China to progress as far as it has.

Second is that despite the extensive efforts to conserve water, and to develop water-sipping alternatives like wind and solar energy, China still faces an enormous projected shortfall of water this decade to its energy-rich northern and western provinces. How government and industry leaders respond to this critical and unyielding choke point forms the central story line of the next era of China's unfolding development.

About Keith Schneider

As Senior Editor, Keith manages the Circle of Blue news desk and participates in multimedia story development reporting, editing and production. He is a nationally-known journalist, online communications specialist and environmental policy expert. Keith was a New York Times national correspondent for over a decade, where he continues to report as a special writer on energy, real estate, business and technology. Before joining Circle of Blue, Keith was media and communications director at the US Climate Action Network and communications director at the Apollo Alliance. Keith developed one of the first independent online news desks as the founder and executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. A sought-after public speaker on the role of original reporting and online communications in the public interest, Keith is a regular contributor to the Times, Yale Environment 360, Grist Magazine and other prominent news organizations. You can read his personal website at Modeshift.org.

This commentary is written by a valued member of the CSRwire contributing writers' community and expresses this author's views alone.

Readers: As energy demand and freshwater reserves continue to move to opposite directions, what steps can China take to minimize its environmental impact? Tell us on Talkback!

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