Pouring good water after bad: China’s water stress set to worsen with transfer initiatives


New research paints a grim picture for the future of China’s water supply, as its booming economy continues to heap pressure on its natural resources, according to new research.

Research by the University of Leeds, along with the University of East Anglia (UEA) and other international partners, compiles for the first time a full inventory of physical water transfers and ‘virtual’ water redistribution via trade between China’s provinces.

The study determined that water stress is only partially mitigated by China’s current two-pronged approach: physical water transfers to water-depleted regions, including the major South-North water transfer projects, or the ‘virtual’ water embodied in traded products between regions and countries.

Moreover, the efforts are exacerbating water stress for China’s poorer water-exporting regions, with virtual water transfers accounting for more than one-third of the country’s national water supply. Up to 65 per cent of the water supply in some provinces is earmarked for virtual water redistribution, to be used for infrastructure and for producing exports.

Until China significantly improves its water use efficiency and addresses the impact its expanding economy is having on its natural resources, the situation will continue to deteriorate, the researchers conclude.

An international effort led by the Beijing Forestry University (China), UEA and Leeds (UK) and the University of Maryland (US), the research analyses data from 2007 and looks ahead to China’s water distribution plans in 2030.

Water stress is likely to become more severe in the main water-exporting provinces, based on policy initiatives aimed at boosting development in wealthier regions to meet consumption demands.

Professor Dabo Guan of UEA’s School of International Development said: “China needs to shift its focus to water demand management instead of a supply oriented approach if it is going to seriously address the overwhelming pressures on its water supplies.

“China’s current transfer programme is pouring good water after bad: the problems of water-stressed regions aren’t being alleviated and the provinces sharing their water are suffering greatly.”

Research published in 2014 showed 75 per cent of China’s lakes and rivers and 50 per cent of its groundwater supplies are contaminated, the result of urban household consumption, export of goods and services and infrastructure investment. 

Professor Martin Tillotson, chair in water management and director of water@leeds, said: “Even allowing for future efficiency gains in agricultural and industrial water consumption, China’s water transfers are likely to be insufficient to offset increased demand due to the effects of economic and population growth.

“A much greater focus needs to be placed on regulating or incentivising reductions in demand-led consumption.”

The research was partly funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Prof Guan’s Philip Leverhulme Prize, a University of Leeds Cheney Fellowship, water@leeds and the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN).

‘Physical and virtual water transfers for regional water stress alleviation in China’ is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

For further information

Professor Martin Tillotson and Professor Dabo Guan are available for interview. Contact Rachel Barson, University of Leeds press officer, on r.barson@leeds.ac.uk or call 0113 343 2060.

The paper is available on request or can be found in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

water@leeds is the water research centre at the University of Leeds and is one of the largest interdisciplinary water research institutes in the world.

Its research performance is internationally excellent and ranks in the top research institutes globally, according to a recent Thomson Reuters report. With expertise across the water cycle and across the disciplines from the sciences and engineering to the arts, water@leeds specialises in tackling global water challenges.

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