Sunday, October 10, 2010

China's Water Crisis

China's Water Crisis by Ma Jun is a comprehensive look at one of China's most serious problems. Ma covers all of the bases of China's water problems in his book - dying rivers, over-development, pollution, the building of dams, and the many other issues related to trying to hydrate China.

The biggest thing I took from Ma's book is this - the destruction of China's water systems and environment goes back much farther than its recent rise in the past few decades. The roots of China's water problems go back to the birth of Chinese civilization thousands of years ago.

Break-neck industrialization in contemporary China has certainly been bad for the environment. Mao and his Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution were possibly even worse than anything done since reform and opening. But the seeds of China's environmental destruction were sowed millenia ago.

China takes pride in its long and continuous culture and history. And it should. Such longevity is impressive. Having such a history has a very high cost though. China's natural resources, and especially water, have been taxed and manipulated by both the population and emperors with little regard for future generations.

Maybe this is common knowledge to others, but I had no idea how much China's topography has changed over the past several centuries. The deserts of Xinjiang used to be green. The barren loess plateau of Shaanxi used to be fertile. And 90% of the industrial northeast's land used to be lush forest.

To illustrate this example, I want to highlight an excerpt from the book on pages 130 and 131 about the history of north China's water problems:
The degradation and ultimate destruction of the Hai River system, especially of its once verdant forests, occurred over a period of centuries - since humans started inhabiting the area, in fact. The first emperor of the Qin (Qin Shi Huang Di) has gone down in the history books as China's great unifier and the first contributor to the Great Wall. But what is often overlooked in this record of nation building is the fact that his grandiose construction project required an enormous amount of wood. The first large-scale attack on the forests of the Yan and Taihang mountains began there.

During the following dynasty, the Han (206B.C. - A.D. 221), a dramatic increase in the population of the empire led to large-scale land development across the North China Plain. That resulted in a reduction of the area's once-rich forests and grasslands. Subsequent dynasties had a practice of moving the capital to different cities, and the construction work on city walls and ornate imperial buildings for each and every one of the meant an increased demand for lumber from the Yan and Taihang mountains. Aside from the more obvious uses of timber for beams, supports, and rafters, it was needed for the equally important wood that fired the immense number of kilns that produced all the bricks needed to build the walls.

As Buddhism spread throughout China from the fourth century A.D. on, even more wood was needed for the many temples that still dot the area, In the Wutai mountains along the upper reaches of the Yongding River, there was one peak alone that had 300 temples, which were built at great expense for the surrounding forests.

By the time of the Yuan dynasty (A.D. 1271 - 1368) local forest reserves were already depleted, and the Yongding River, the largest tributary of the Hai system, began silting up so much that it soon became known to locals as the "Little Yellow River."

By the Ming Dynasty, whose capacity for destruction of the environment has already been noted several times, the population increase had pushed the land reclamation efforts farther up into the mountains. The Ming emperors made an attempt to strengthen and connect parts of the Great Wall, and by the time they had finished the large construction projects, virtually all the forests within several hundred kilometers of the wall had been denuded.

But "civilization" was not about to be stopped. By the time of the last dynasty, the Qing (A.D. 1644-1911), population growth was so unchecked that per capita access to arable land began to decline. Put another way, the ecological limits of the Hai River valley had been reached, as was made amply clear but the frequency of the droughts and floods that hit the valley. In 2,000 years of civilization, the forest cover of the North China Plain went from 60-70 percent to just around 5 percent by 1949.
Showing that China's resources have been exploited for centuries is a major point of the book. But the past fifty years, particularly the Great Leap Forward and the economic development of the past thirty years, are shown to have wreaked an amazing amount of havoc as well. Ma goes into great detail on these issues.

Ma takes the reader through a tour of the entire country writing about the problems that each region faces. I look at China in a completely new way having read Ma's book.

One of the only issues I have with Ma's China's Water Crisis is that it was published in 2004 with much of the data coming from the 1990s. There are a number of issues - northern Chinese cities being built of falling water tables, the moving of "heaven and earth" to hydrate Beijing, and general shortages - that would be interesting to see updated. This is a small quibble seeing that these things are all addressed. It would still be nice to see a revised edition though.

As global warming intensifies and climates change at more rapid rates, China's water problems very well may be the country's most difficult social issues in the coming decades. Himalayan glaciers that are the source for China's (and Asia's) major rivers are melting. Huge urban metropoli are being built on falling water tables. And industrial pollution has made many of China's rivers unusable by those lucky enough to be positioned next to fresh water.

Ma's book is a great primer on some of the biggest challenges facing the people and the leaders of China.


Hopfrog said...

That bookshelf must be growing at an alarming rate. I have this image of you being interviewed someday sitting in front of hundreds of China books. I look forward to adding your book to my collection.

I believe we've talked water crisis here in the past, and it seems to be a pretty global problem. I see it firsthand with the falling levels being so visible at Lake Mead. Of course if something is a global problem, its certainly going to be a problem to the nth power in China. Everytime one of those dust storms blows through Beijing I hope they are reminded of what it means and will start to treat this water crisis as, well, a crisis!

Mark said...

My bookshelf is growing rapidly. It's a shame none of my friends in KC give a rip about reading China books. I'd be a great resource in that regard.

I actually got "China's Water Crisis" from an inter-library loan since it is so expensive on Amazon. The messed up thing is that I accidentally spilled some coffee on the book and it looks like I'll probably end up adding it to my bookshelf in the end after I have to replace the copy I borrowed with a new one!

I'll be sure to post here when I double-check the book I made. Hopefully it turns out like it's supposed to.

I agree that water is a global problem. Have you read Cadillac Desert? I might've asked you that before. It's about the western US and the history of water abuse out there. You'd probably enjoy it.

Beijing is taking the problem seriously (see that moving "heaven and earth" link).

I really hope that China figures out how to solve their water problems. It's a very serious issue. I'm not overly optimistic though considering the at-any-costs growth and urbanization that is going on throughout the nation. It also seems that when humans try manipulating natural systems too much, something usually backfires pretty hard.

Hopfrog said...

I hear ya about being frustrated with those around you not giving a blip. The really frustrating thing for me is when some of those I work and socialize with start spouting some silly uninformed assumptions about China and then I go on to try and educate them a little bit more about the issues and their eyes just kind of glaze over and a week later they are spouting the same nonsense. Sigh.

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