Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

On Xi's to-do list: Fix China's drinking problem

By Jaime A. FlorCruz, CNN
November 23, 2012 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Experts say pollution is a serious threat to China's already limited water supplies.
Experts say pollution is a serious threat to China's already limited water supplies.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • China is one of 13 countries facing extreme water shortages, according to the U.N.
  • The country is home to 20% of the world's population, but only has 6% of its water resources
  • Yangtze River, once the country's lifeblood, has now turned blood red
  • Pollution needs to be cut, but ordinary Chinese must also reduce consumption: Experts

Beijing (CNN) -- When China's new leader Xi Jinping spoke to the media last week, one sound bite struck me as especially noteworthy.

The Chinese people love life, he said, and they wish for better education, more stable jobs, better medical care -- in short, "more comfortable living conditions and a more beautiful environment."

This, he said, is the goal that China must strive for, one that is surely shared by many Chinese.

To achieve that, however, China needs to square the circle: to grow fast while mitigating the degradation of its environment and ecology, especially its air and water.

Read more: Protest stops China sewage pipeline project

China, for one, has a drinking problem.

I discussed this topic with a group of experts in a Fortune magazine forum recently held in Beijing.

China's water crisis looks grim, the panelists agreed. The United Nations says China is one of 13 countries with extreme water shortages.

China's environmental challenges
China in transition
China's new leaders
China river turns bright red

The problem is partly demographic -- it hosts 20% of the world's population yet only holds six percent of the world's water resources -- but is also exacerbated by rapid and short-sighted development.

Read more: Taking a swim? App lets users check water's cleanliness first

Strong economic growth has turned the country into the world's second largest economy but at the expense of the environment.

The Yangtze River, once the lifeblood of the country, now flows a foreboding blood red, possibly due to industrial pollution, experts said.

Chronic droughts plague important agricultural regions like Shandong province, which produces most of China's grain.

For Guo Peiyuan, general manager at SynTao, a Beijing-based corporate sustainability consulting firm, the problem is close and personal.

"I was born in a farmer's family in southern China, and there are a lot of rivers there," he recalled. "When I was a child we could swim in the river. But as I grew up in the 1990s, a lot of factories came in. One summer vacation I went to my hometown, and my mother told me that the local farmers would not use the water for the crops because water was polluted, and the vegetables would die."

Read more: River in China turns red

Stories like Guo's are common. Citizens lodge not-in-my-background public protests amid fears of industrial pollution. In October, for instance, thousands of residents protested in Ningbo, a thriving coastal city, and forced local officials to shelve plans to expand a chemical plant.

Such successes are still rare, and experts worry the water crisis is going to worsen in years.

China's water demand will reach 818 billion cubic meters, experts say, and yet there's only 616 billion cubic meters available.

Beijing has about 100 cubic meters of water available per person, well below the U.N. standard of 1,000 cubic meters per person, a threshold used to measure chronic water shortage.

Read more: ConocoPhillips to pay $191 million more to China over oil spill

Debra Tan, a specialist at China Water Risk, a Hong Kong-based non-profit group, suggested a way to visualize the crisis. Imagine, she said, that China has 25 bathtubs of water per person. The U.S. will have the equivalent of 125 bathtubs.

Polluted water is both deadly and costly.

China now has around 300 million people with no access to potable water, resulting in some 66,000 deaths per year, according to the World Bank. It estimates the cost of water pollution to China at $22 billion, roughly 1.1 percent of the country's GDP.

The Chinese government recognizes the problem and is seeking to cut water consumption by 30%.

Read more: Experts detail 5 challenges for China

But that target, experts said, is hard to reach.

"Because of population growth, because of distribution of populations, there's even greater demand. There's an expected increase of up to 10% demand in the agricultural spaces in northern China. This increase is going to put ever increasing stress on those already stressed water systems," said Matthew Durnin, director of science programs in Asia for The Nature Conservancy.

Read more: Why booming China needs to learn the three R's

China's rapacious water consumption is in part boosted by an illogical scenario: water, while scarce, is unusually cheap.

"In China, water really should be three to five times more expensive," said Tan of China Water Risk.

One way to reduce consumption, she said, will be to keep raising water prices, a step China has been taking since 2009.

Tan believes the solution lies in targeting industry and agriculture, the "largest users and polluters." They use about 85% of the water in China, she said, and should face higher disincentives and harsher punishments.

Ma Jun, who runs the non-profit Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, seeks pollution control, especially of water resources, by blacklisting notorious violators.

Read more: China's famed Pearl River under denim threat

Ma, one of China's most tenacious "green warriors," has made some headway but said environmental litigation is nearly impossible because enforcement of existing environmental laws is weak.

"We need to bring in more stakeholders and apply public pressure, like putting these companies on a list of polluters," he said.

Pressure, shaming and wish to make amends, he said, is changing behavior. "So far we have some 720 companies on our list coming to our NGOs to figure out what they did wrong and how they can fix their problems."

Read more: Red river brings cancer, Chinese villagers say

Ordinary Chinese consumers need to change consumption habits, too, experts said, just like those in developed countries.

"America can't be America anymore," explained Durnin of The Nature Conservancy. "The rest of the world can't be like the developed world. We can't keep saying that we want everyone to rise up to the same standard because that is an unsustainable standard."

Durnin proposed a simple step for China and other countries to take: fix leaky pipes.

"There's a lot of waste in urban environments, in the transfer of water in the pipes. There's literally hundreds of millions of miles of pipe laid around the world that are leaking and wasting water. These are some simple fixes that we could do right away."

CNN's Rebecca Chao contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 0518 GMT (1318 HKT)
A top retired general has confessed to taking bribes, becoming the highest-profile figure in China's military to be caught up in President Xi Jinping's war on corruption.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0507 GMT (1307 HKT)
A group in China escapes from a stuck elevator thanks to one man and his trusty hammer. CNN's Kristie Lu Stout reports.
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1352 GMT (2152 HKT)
Facebook's founder says he taught himself Mandarin and tested his skills with students in China.
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 0133 GMT (0933 HKT)
China launched an experimental spacecraft that is scheduled to orbit the moon before returning to Earth.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Full marks for ingenuity: This was a truly high-tech scam.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0526 GMT (1326 HKT)
The rationale behind Confucius Institutes -- an international chain of academic centers run by an arm of the Chinese government -- is understandable.
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1511 GMT (2311 HKT)
Smooth jazz saxophonist Kenny G wants everyone to know that he's not a foreign agitator trying to defy the Chinese Communist Party.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1113 GMT (1913 HKT)
A smuggler in Dandong, a Chinese border town near North Korea, tells CNN about the underground trade with North Korean soldiers
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 0511 GMT (1311 HKT)
Yenn Wong got quite a surprise one morning earlier this month when she found out an exact copy of her Hong Kong restaurant had opened in China.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0315 GMT (1115 HKT)
When I first came across a "virtual lover" service on e-commerce site Taobao, China's version of Amazon, I thought it was hype.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Each year Yi Jiefeng does what she can to stop China turning into a desert.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1454 GMT (2254 HKT)
As its relationship with the West worsen, Russia is pivoting east in an attempt to secure business with China.
October 8, 2014 -- Updated 0229 GMT (1029 HKT)
Aspiring Chinese comics performing in Shanghai's underground comedy scene hope to bring stand-up to the masses.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1654 GMT (0054 HKT)
Liu Wen is one of the world's highest-paid models and the first Chinese face to crack the top five in Forbes' annual list of top earners.
October 3, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
Cunning wolf? Working class hero? Or bland Beijing loyalist? C.Y. Leung was a relative unknown when he came to power in 2012.
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
 A man uses his smartphone on July 16, 2014 in Tokyo, Japan. Only 53.5% of Japanese owned smartphones in March, according to a white paper released by the Ministry of Communications on July 15, 2014. The survey of a thousand participants each from Japan, the U.S., Britain, France, South Korea and Singapore, demonstrated that Japan had the fewest rate of the six; Singapore had the highest at 93.1%, followed by South Korea at 88.7%, UK at 80%, and France at 71.6%, and U.S. at 69.6% in the U.S. On the other hand, Japan had the highest percentage of regular mobile phone owners with 28.7%. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)
App hopes to help those seeking a way out of China's overstrained public health system.
October 3, 2014 -- Updated 0020 GMT (0820 HKT)
Yards from pro-democracy protests, stands the Hong Kong garrison of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), China's armed forces.
ADVERTISEMENT