A dam near the Great Wall, Beijing, China. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN

With the advent of frequent water-pollution incidents such as algae blooms that make the water unusable for millions, the necessity of irrigation for more than 70 percent of its grain and cash crops, and a perennial water shortage, China’s water resources are at the center of one of the most important legal reforms in modern Chinese governance.

More and more people in China, including Chinese officials, are beginning to approach their country’s water supply as a vulnerable resource—one that is inexorably linked to their future—rather than a free natural resource to be used without restraint and consideration. In the first decade of the twenty-first century problems contributing to China’s water sustainability can be generalized in three categories: shortage, pollution, and abuse.


With a total volume of freshwater resources of 2.8 trillion cubic meters, trailing only Brazil, Russia, and Canada, China’s water resources equate to 2,220 cubic meters per capita—just one-fourth of the world’s average.

These limited water resources are unevenly distributed both spatially and temporally. Some 80.5 percent of China’s water resources are concentrated south of the Yangzi (Chang) River, where only 46.5 percent of the population lives on only 35.2 percent of the country’s total arable farmland. The remaining 53.5 percent of the population is in the north, living on 64.6 percent of the arable farmland, and, by contrast, they have access to merely 19.5 percent of the water resources. Because about 71 percent of the volume of water in China relies on direct recharge by precipitation, waterfalls are vital to replenishing and sustaining China’s water supply. Yet the average annual precipitation in China is 648 millimeters, 19 percent less than the world average of 800 millimeters (over land). While the precipitation is mostly concentrated in the four months from June to September during the flood season, which may amount to 70 percent of the annual total, this volume ranges in magnitude from more than 2,000 millimeters in the southeastern coastal areas to less than 200 millimeters in the northwestern hinterlands. In Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, for example, annual precipitation is around 305 millimeters, while annual evaporation is as much as 2,000 millimeters. The precipitation drops further to 50 millimeters in the Tarim and Turpan basins in Xinjiang and Chaidamu Basin in Qinghai. For comparison, average annual precipitation in the central Sahara Desert is less than 25 millimeters, while that of Scotland is approximately 1,500 millimeters.

Similarly uneven distribution is seen in groundwater, which constitutes about one-third of China’s freshwater resources. Southern China claims 67.7 percent of the total groundwater, leaving merely 32.3 percent to the arid north. Because groundwater accounts for 70 percent of the drinking water supply and 40 percent of agricultural irrigation, the uneven distribution aggravates the water shortage in northern China.

With rapid economic growth and urbanization, the water shortage has become even more acute. China’s absolute urban population increased from 172 million in 1978 to 562 million—or 43 percent of the total—in 2005, and the demand for water is growing accordingly. According to the Ministry of Water Resources, China has an annual shortage of water totaling 40 billion cubic meters, while 2 to 2.6 million square meters of land area suffer draught. The water shortage costs 15 to 20 billion kilograms of grain production and more than 200 billion yuan of industrial output value every year. Meanwhile, over 70 million people across China have difficulty accessing safe drinking water.


While northern China thirsts for water, the water-affluent south has suffered ever more frequent water shortages due to pollution, although pollution is not unique to the south. Of the five-hundred sections of China’s nine major river systems that are monitored for water quality, only 28 percent have water suitable for drinking, while 31 percent have water quality of limited or no functional use. The Haihe, Liaohe, Huang (Yellow), and Huaihe river systems are the worst polluted all in the north, although all the rest of China’s river systems have also had high nitrogen or other pollutant concentrations to various degrees as well. In addition, more than 75 percent of China’s lakes have been polluted. A sample survey reveals that 97 percent of the 118 cities investigated have groundwater that is polluted to varying degrees; 64 percent have seriously polluted groundwater (Ministry of Water Resources 2005). Lake Baiyangdian, China’s largest natural lake, is a source of food and drinking water for people who live around it. Sometimes called the “kidney” of north China, the lake has had an historical role in filtering the waters of nine rivers that flow through it. It has been polluted by arsenic and mercury from sources such as coal emissions, agricultural runoff, and sewage discharge.

Water pollution is caused by increasing discharge of domestic, industrial, and agricultural wastes that often receives little treatment. Unreasonable industrial layout has seated many old, heavily polluting or toxically dangerous industries along rivers. A survey conducted by the State Environmental Protection Administration (2004) shows that, among the 7,555 chemical or petroleum projects in China, 81 percent are located in environmentally sensitive areas such as water networks or densely populated habitats. Of the 1,441 environmental incidents reported in 2004, half were related to water pollution.

Until 2000, only 24 percent of the total 62 billion tons of sewage and wastewater annually discharged in China were treated at the national standard. Along the Yangzi River, China’s longest river, which meanders through eighteen provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions, a number of pollution belts have formed out of industrial and domestic wastes discharged short of the treatment standard. These belts run 600 kilometers in total length. Pollutants include micro-organisms, oils, volatile phenols, cyanides, sulfides, mercury, cadmium, lead, chromium, and arsenic. Projects designed for flood control and alleviation of arid areas also have an detrimental impact on the quality of water in the Yangzi. The Three Gorges Dam exacerbates water pollution in the Yangzi by impounding water and reducing the velocity of the river. Impounded water submerges parts of the existing sewer system and wastewater treatment facilities. Plans to divert water from the Yangzi to arid north China will reduce the volume of the water flowing through the Yangzi and thus reduce its ability to dilute and flush toxins.

Pollution has aggravated the shortage of water in the water-scarce north, and it has caused water famines in the water-affluent south. According to the State Environmental Protection Administration, China now faces intensive outbreaks of water pollution incidents as a consequence of neglecting environmental protection over the past decades; reports of a water pollution incidents have been as frequent as every two or three days on average since the end of 2005. A sudden burst of foul algae blanketed the Taihu Lake in southern Jiangsu in late May 2007, cutting the drinking-water supply to more than 2 million people in Wuxi city, a leading economic engine house of the country, for a week. In the Pearl River delta in Guangdong, where the volume of freshwater resourc
es averages at 330 billion cubic meters a year, rapid economic growth since the 1980s has coupled with pollution to nearly every river course in the urban areas. The pollution has resulted in a water shortage affecting 16 million people in the province (Ministry of Water Resources 2005). Nationwide, the safety of the drinking water more than 300 million people is in question.


The Ministry of Water Resources maintains that the exploitation of water resources in China in general is not very high, at about 19.5 percent in 2000, although some experts have warned about abuses of water resources.

A traditional farming country, China’s agriculture depends on irrigation: Some 90 percent of cash crops and 70 percent of grain crops are irrigated. In the nine provinces and autonomous regions along the Huang River alone, irrigated farmland increased from 1.4 million hectares in the early 1950s to nearly 5 million hectares in the late 1990s, while the water consumption by agricultural, industrial, and domestic users increased from 1 billion cubic meters a year to well over 30 billion cubic meters. Scientists believe the use of the Huang River water is excessive and beyond the capacity of China’s second largest river, a river that provides water to nearly half of the nation and that cradled the origins of Chinese civilization. This excessive use was identified as one of the causes for the river running dry in its lower reaches for 226 days in 1997. That year the Huang River carried only 1.8 billion cubic meters of water into the sea, compare to an average of 20 billion cubic meters.

Groundwater is also excessively exploited at a volume of more than 9 billion cubic meters per year. This has led to ground subsidence or clefts in many areas, especially in the north, forming seventy-two depression cones across the whole country. According to the Ministry of Land and Resources, about fifty cities in China have reported sinking ground, with the worst occurring in Shanghai, Tianjin, and Taiyuan, where sinking has averaged more than two meters per year since the early 1990s.

The pressure from population growth and economic development has affected wetlands as well. In the fifty-seven years since 1950, China’s total lake area has shrunk by 16,585.36 square kilometers; an average of twenty lakes vanish each year (2007). For example, Qinghai Lake, China’s largest inland saltwater lake at 4,300 square kilometers, lost more than 380 square kilometers between 1959 and 2006. Government plans to address the problems at Quinghai Lake include moving hotels, restaurants, and other tourist facilities to an area at least 3 kilometers from the bank. The Yangzi River valley alone lost 3,000 square kilometers of lake surface area during this period. The surface areas of Dongting Hu and Poyang Hu lakes, two of the major detention basins for Yangzi floods, have shrunk by 46 percent and 40 percent respectively, with their stored volume decreasing from more than 30 billion cubic meters to around 17 billion cubic meters. Hubei, once dubbed as “the province of a thousand lakes,” had 1,066 lakes in the late 1950s. Now only 182 lakes are left.

In contrast to the withering of natural lakes is the construction of eighty-five thousand reservoirs of various sizes, with a total storage volume of 520 billion cubic meters (2000). The controversial Three Gorges Dam tops this list: it is the world’s largest hydropower project, and more than 1.2 million people were displaced before it began to generate electricity in 2003. Despite the criticisms of opponents about the environmental and social impacts of the reservoirs (i.e., threats to living conditions of aquatic species, hazards to local vegetation and biodiversity, sedimentation, and induction of geological havocs), hydropower is prioritized as part of China’s pursuit of new and clean energy. Figures from the Ministry of Water Resources, the leading dam builder, show that China has over 500 million kilowatts of exploitable water power, while the installed hydroelectric capacity by the end of 2005 was 117 million kilowatts, about 24 percent of the potential. The target is to boost the capacity to 180 million kilowatts by 2010 and to 300 million kilowatts in 2020. That means more river sections will be dammed for hydropower projects. Measures to meet these goals include construction of large hydroelectric power stations, such as the Xiaowan Dam on the Lancang River. Second in size to the Three Gorges Dam, this power station will be capable of generating 4.2 million kilowatts by 2013. China is also investing in small hydroelectric power stations that generate 25 megawatts or less.

Although agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the total water consumption in China, the efficiency of irrigation trails other countries. The average efficiency of irrigation water nationwide is 0.43 (2000 estimate), meaning that 57 percent of the water fails to reach the end crops; this figure is 0.7 in advanced countries elsewhere. The re-use rate of industrial water is 55 percent compared with 75 to 85 percent in other advanced countries.


China has enacted at least four laws concerning water, namely the Water Law, the Law on Flood Control, the Law on Water and Soil Conservation, and the Law on Water Pollution Prevention. This legislation has institutionalized the water-drawing permit, the utilization of water resources upon payment, the economic use of water resources, and has placed a penalty on polluters. Programs have been created to conserve headwaters; to prevent and control water pollution; to make comprehensive use of various water resources including surface water, groundwater and flood water; to reduce water consumption; and to improve water efficiency. Meanwhile, surveillance of water quality has been enhanced, involving both government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Enforcement of the laws and regulations poses the largest question. While there has been much talk about enhancing modern water management, so far the chief administrator of water resources, the Ministry of Water Resources, is seen as being keener on tapping rather than protecting the water resources. Water pollution inspections are often conducted by environmental protection agencies, yet they lack the authority to really execute effective punishment because the polluters are usually protected by local governments by virtue of their “contributions” to the local revenue.

Perhaps incidents like the outbreak of foul algae in the Taihu Lake is teaching decision makers to manage pollution more effectively and is driving home the idea of protecting the water environment more immediately. The pollution control of the Taihu Lake had been conducted for more than ten years prior to the incident, but to no avail. Following the outbreak, however, the provincial government of Jiangsu recognized that controlling lake pollution is an urgent priority and began to treat it as a debt that had to be paid to nature. The Jiangsu government decided to shut down more than 2,000 small chemical plants around Taihu Lake by 2008 and to build a green shelter around the lake 1 kilometer wide. In this area some 660 hectares of cropland will be restored and replanted with trees and grass in order to reduce the discharge of agricultural waste to the lake. According to the local media, this plan is unprecedented. The provincial government pledged to clean the lake even if it is causes a 15 percent downturn in the province’s GDP.

Numerous lessons have shown that it is essential to strike a harmonious relationship with nature rather than conquer it. More and more people in China, including officials at the Ministry of Water Resources, have come to see that water is not inexhaustible, but rather that it is a limited and vulnerable resource. It is not a free natural resource, but it is va
luable and strategically significant. Therefore water resources cannot be developed and used unboundedly without consideration of their sustainability. Authorities have also adopted the idea that it is more important to ration the use of water resources with high efficiency than to simply harness the water. This notion is regarded as the hope for the sustainability of water resources in China. Whatever the future in China holds, it is certain that the management of water resources is inextricably intertwined with its direction.

Further Reading

Chen, C. Y., Pickhardt, P. C., Xu, M. Q., & Folt, C. L. (2008). Mercury and arsenic bioaccumulation and eutrophication in Baiyangdian Lake, China. Water, Air, Soil Pollution, 190, 115–127.

Extremely high levels of mercury and arsenic found in Chinese lake. (2008). Retrieved February 3, 2009 from http://news.mongabay.com/2008/0110-china.html

Li Shijie, et al. (2007). Vicissitudes of China’s lakes. Forests and Human Beings, 11.

Ministry of Water Resources. (2005). Annual Report of the Ministry of Water Resources, 2004-2005. Retrieved January 30, 2009, from http://www.mwr.gov.cn/english1/20060404/69725.asp

Wang Jiaquan. (2007). China’s economic engine forced to face environmental deficit. Retrieved January 30, 2009, from http://www.worldwatch.org/node/5259

New plan to save Quinghai Lake. (2007, September 11). China Daily, p. 4. Retrieved February 3, 2009, from http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2007-09/11/content_6095501.htm

World Bank. (2007). Water pollution emergencies in China: Prevention and response. Washington, DC: World Bank. Retrieved January 30, 2009, from http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTEAPREGTOPENVIRONMENT/Resources/Water_Pollution_Emergency_Final_EN.pdf

World Wide Fund for Nature. (2007). Threat of Pollution in the Yangtze. Retrieved February 4, 2009, from http://www.panda.org/about_wwf/what_we_do/freshwater/problems/river_decline/10_rivers_risk/yangtze/yangtze_threats/

Yang Jianxiang. (2007). Hydropower: A viable solution for China’s energy future? Retrieved February 2, 2009, from http://www.worldwatch.org/node/4908

Source: Xiong, Lei. (2009). Water Resources. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2428–2432. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

The inner workings of the Water Conservancy Project at Yangzhou, 1979. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Rafts on the Yangzi River, 1980, now the source of water power at the Three Gorges Dam. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Water Resources (Shu?lì z?yuán ????)|Shu?lì z?yuán ???? (Water Resources)

Download the PDF of this article