Forget Taiwan

Same old story, underplayed as usual: Report: China Faces Severe Water Shortages:

China’s already severe water shortages are worsening due to heavy pollution of lakes and aquifers and urban development projects with a big thirst for water, such as lawns and fountains, state media reported.

More than 100 cities have inadequate water supplies, with more than half “seriously threatened,” the official Xinhua News Agency cited Qiu Baoxing, a vice minister of construction, as saying.

“The uneven distribution of the limited resource and serious pollution further deteriorate the situation,” Qiu said.

In Beijing, for example, each resident has access to only 10,593 cubic feet of water a year, compared with the world average of 35,310 cubic feet, Xinhua said in a separate report.

That reminded me of an article I read in the November 1997 edition of The Atlantic Monthly entitled “Our Real China Problem” by Mark Hertsgaard (available online to subscribers here) which documents the impact of China’s population growth and industrialization on China’s environment. Excerpt:

At least five of the cities with the worst air pollution in the world are in China. Sixty to 90 percent of the rainfall in Guangdong, the southern province that is the center of China’s economic boom, is acid rain. Since nearly all the gasoline in China is leaded (Beijing switched to unleaded gas in June), and 80 percent of the coal isn’t “washed” before being burned, people’s lungs and nervous systems are bombarded by an extraordinary volume and variety of deadly poisons. One of every four deaths in China is caused by lung disease, brought about by the air pollution and the increasingly fashionable habit of cigarette smoking. Suburban sprawl and soil erosion gobbled up more than 86 million acres of farmland from 1950 to 1990 — as much as all the farmland in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. Farmland losses have continued in the 1990s, raising questions about China’s ability to feed itself in years to come, especially as rising incomes lead to more meat-intensive diets.


Beijing has so little water that Party leaders have questioned whether the city can remain the capital, according to Yu Yuefeng, the staff director of the Environmental Protection and Natural Resources Conservation Committee of the National People’s Congress. With a nervous chuckle, Yu told me that the problem has eased in the past two years, thanks to higher than normal rainfall, but, he conceded, “This is a roll of the dice. We have to rely on the gods to keep the rains coming.” In his privileged Party position Yu can afford to laugh. The problem is not so amusing for some 50 million people in rural northern China who must walk for miles or wait for days to obtain any drinking water at all. As for farmland, population growth has reduced the supply per person to about the size of one third of a tennis court.

That article appeared seven and a half years ago.

If China wants to conquer, Taiwan might only be a starting point. If China goes the militaristic conqueror route, it will need clean land, arable land and fresh water. Which would worry me if I shared a frontier with China.