China’s Water Issues Focus on Building Resilience Against Flooding and Droughts

Rating: B

Past discussions on the water in China have centred mainly on the use of water for hydroelectricity generation and the construction of megadams, e.g., the Three Gorges Dam, as well as the remediation of drinking water pollution due to leachate from agricultural activity and wastewater contamination from industrial production. Over the past five years, however, how climate change-induced heatwaves and droughts lead to water shortages while flooding and torrential rains wreak havoc on cities and crops has moved to the forefront. And with it, the question of how much it will imperil China’s economic development and the livelihood of its people. This has triggered the Chinese government to release its first-ever Five-Year Plan for water security in 2021.

China’s water troubles are manifold: While China has just under 20% of the world’s population and, in many areas, still serves as the “factory of the world,” it holds only about 6% of the world’s freshwater reserves. Besides household consumption, water is crucial in ensuring energy security and agricultural and industrial production.

Water resources are unevenly distributed across the country. For example, the Northern China Plain, which holds 40% of China’s arable land and nearly 35% of its population, holds less than 8% of China’s water resources. In contrast, the southern provinces adjacent to the Himalayas have traditionally been water-rich, with major rivers like the Yangtse River emanating from the high mountains, augmented each spring by additional meltwater. In addition, tropical and sub-tropical provinces like Guangzhou and Yunnan have traditionally seen more rain-replenishing lakes and rivers, such as the Pearl River.

As to water pollution, some estimates state that 80 – 90% of groundwater is unfit for drinking, and half of China’s aquifers are too polluted to use for industry or farming. While 50% of river water cannot serve as drinking water, 25% is unfit for use for industrial and agricultural purposes.

Uneven water distribution has traditionally been addressed by constructing large hydro infrastructure projects such as the South-North Water Transfer Project, the world’s largest water diversion facility. It taps the water of China’s mighty Yangtse River and moves 13 billion cubic meters per year, some 3,000 kilometres northward.

However, new problems are emerging with climate change: droughts in water-rich areas exacerbate shortage issues in water-stressed areas. 2022 saw some of the worst droughts around the Yangtse River basin, drying out large stretches of river along the river valley and impacting the ability to generate hydropower or irrigation water. Lack of water not only impacts the availability of clean drinking water and agricultural production, and therefore China’s ability to remain independent of food imports, but it also endangers energy security because much of China’s energy remains reliant on coal-fired plants – and those need water for cooling. Water shortages are starting to threaten China’s economic development agenda. At the same time, inundated cities and destroyed harvests due to flooding and the onslaught of ever-fiercer typhoons are also causing significant financial losses and damages.

China has developed a tradition of addressing its water pollution problem: recent Five-Year Plans have consistently set annual targets for attaining higher percentages of water bodies with top water quality categories I – III. Policies since 2011 include the document “Accelerating Water Conservancy Reform and Development” or “China’s Water Policy 2012,” which called for including river health models in the overall strategic water planning and provided a budget of 4 trillion yuan over the decade between 2012 and 2022. Also, in 2012, the China-Europe water dialogue was established for joint research and private-sector cooperation on better management of water resources. The 2015 “Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Water Pollution” aimed to strengthen the prevention and control of water pollution. On a communal or municipal scale, water-related citizen science projects emerged in China to remediate water pollution. These policies have successfully improved water quality for main rivers and lakes, as the Ministry of Environment and Ecology reports in the “2020 Report on the State of the Ecology and Environment of China” – numbers compounded by monitoring data of the independent civil society organization IPE.

With droughts proliferating recently, China has again taken recourse to an old remedy: Officials announced in May 20203 to build a national “water network” of new canals, reservoirs, and storage facilities.  Over the past five years, China has embarked on more than 100 diversion projects. Total investment in fixed water assets exceeded 1.1 trillion yuan ($154 billion) last year, up 44% compared with 2021.  It rose 15.6% to 407 billion yuan in the first quarter of 2023, and officials say even more funding will be available.

In consequence, China’s efforts to address water pollution can be considered to have been effective. However, with regard to addressing flooding or water shortages, the water diversion projects have proved only moderately effective. However, they are not considered the best solution for the future by experts. A better approach to tackle water shortage issues would be improved water saving and efficiency measures, restructuring the power system from coal to renewables, improved wastewater recycling, increased desalination, or –for crops – the switch to drought-resistant crops or alternative irrigation methods. Efforts in the right direction have been initiated and must be ramped up over time.

This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Country Manager Annette Wiedenbach.



EURObiz_10th_Issue_sept_Octo_996_[32].pdf in: (last accessed July 21, 2023),in%20China%20per%20year8.

2020 Report on the State of the Ecology and Environment of China in: (last accessed July 28, 2023)


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