When the Well Is Dry, Part 2

I was planning a separate entry on China’s problems with water in comparison to ours, but Fred Pearce, author of When the Rivers Run Dry helped me out in this February 16, 2009 New Scientist article: “Parched China to Slash Water Consumption by 60%.” (Links within this article will take the reader to the news stories from Chinese sources.)

If anyone has any doubts that, like us, China is in trouble because it has more human demand for water than it has water, just go to your favorite search engine, type in “water use china,” and hit the Search button.

The results impressed–ok, scared–me, and I already knew that China, historically the world’s greatest hydrologic culture, was drying up. Here are links to just a couple: “China Vows Efficient Water Usage” from the China Daily of February 15, 2009 and “Beneath Booming Cities, China’s Future Is Drying Up,” from the New York Times of September 28, 2007.

They’re implementing all sorts of measures, of course, with the usual short-term fixes. Dams, conservation, that sort of thing. Now since China’s a totalitarian country, the government has more power to enforce its plans. Care to bet if their measures work in the long term even if they work in the short term, which is in itself open to betting?

I’m putting my money on FAIL. First, China simply has more people than its water supplies can support. Second, there’s the law of unintended consequences, something that William Catton points out so well throughout Overshoot. Every time we act in a way we think is harmless and even helpful, something tends to pop up that complicates the issue. All to often the “answer” turns out to give us just another set of problems.

The comment by Kiran Bhatt posted beneath “China’s Clever Water Use Boosts Food Yields,” a January 29, 2010, article by Yidong Gong, nicely points out a few of the more obvious:

One of the efficient water use measure, as mentioned in the article, is reuse of wastewater for irrigation. However, use of reused wastewater for prolonged time may lead to (1) groundwater contamination by leaching of toxins (2) degradation of Soil texture and (3) possible uptake of toxins by plant (s) itslef.

Bhatt’s point ties in nicely with the arable land post I’ve yet to write.



5 Responses to “When the Well Is Dry, Part 2”

  1. Babz Says:

    I’m pondering Condemon’s eariler comment that we, the ants, cannot impact the environment in any significant way. I’m glad this is true because since the SuperFund Cleanup of the Milltown Dam in Bonner, MT got screwed up, the cyanide and arsenic levels flowing down the Clark Fork into the Colombia river and then into the ocean have made our fish population dangerous to eat. I’m glad that this is OK, and part of the natural chain of events on earth.

  2. comdenom Says:

    Northern China is in a geographical region that is drought prone while Southern China often deals with flooding. Millions of people died in 1886 from the effects of drought when no anthropogenic causes were clearly possible. http://science.jrank.org/pages/2165/Drought-History.html

    A Totalitarian Regime could also dictate and enforce where the water distribution is designated, often discounting the expendable masses (population control).

    Droughts have no correlation to the anthropogenic causes as outlined in the “climate change” or “global warming” movement. The science and opinion has quickly and successively fallen apart for AGW as more are having feet held to the fire. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250872/Climategate-U-turn-Astonishment-scientist-centre-global-warming-email-row-admits-data-organised.html

    Similarly over population is not the cause of drought either, although would exacerbate the situation (5 people could more easly manage the same amount of water usage as 1 trillion people). http://flowingdata.com/2009/11/13/land-mass-and-population-by-country/

  3. uncommonscolds Says:


    Yes, North China is plagued by drought, but I wasn’t talking about droughts. I thought the Part 2 title of my followup to the post on the Ogallala suggested I was still mainly focused on groundwater. I did mention dams and such, so I wandered a bit, but by throwing China in, I just wanted to point out that dropping water tables are not just a concern for the United States.

    China has the same problems. For example, here is “Groundwater Renewability in the Deep Confined aquifer, North China Plain,” a brief article from the International Geological Congress –Oslo 2008: http://www.cprm.gov.br/33IGC/1343906.html

    It mentions, among other things, that “ground water in the central and littoral portions of the North China may date from10,000 yr B.P to 35,000 yr B.P by radiocarbon dating.” This is similar to the age of the water now being pumped from the Ogallala. This little article also mentions similarly slow refill: “The tracers have suggested a slow natural replenishment rates to the central plain. These imply that groundwater in this area is limited and the aquifer has been overexploited.” This too is similar to what we’ve done to the Ogallala.

    China’s also on a countdown. _Time Asia_ in “China’s Water Woes” available at http://www.time.com/time/asia/2006/environment/water.html says, “Few dispute that something needs to be done to avert crisis in the North China Plain—an area that is home to roughly 40% of China’s population and produces about 40% of its grain. According to Jiang Liping, a water-resources expert at the World Bank, parts of the region are between 10 and 20 years away from running out of groundwater.”

    Since this article is from 2006, the “10 to 20 years” may be less than that now.

    This article also has a poignant example of the need for groundwater: “In Yehe village, farmer Tian, 61, harvests millet with his family. Their drinking water, Tian says, comes from a communal well 360 m deep. “We can’t afford to use this water to irrigate,” he says. ‘We now rely on the sky. If it doesn’t rain, we don’t eat.'”

    Tian is not alone. Each year, many dig their wells deeper and less water comes out. And if the well dries up—

    So I offer dropping water tables as examples of how a growing human population has unbalanced a natural system by taking more than that system can offer.

    Condenom, do you deny that humans are dropping water tables? Do you deny that increasing populations have caused us to overdraw our groundwater accounts? Do you deny that aquifers are important to human survival?


  4. uncommonscolds Says:


    By the way, thanks for the FlowingData mass-population chart. I’m going to hop over to _The CIA World Factbook_ and add the arable land percentages, That should help illuminate the next problem I hope to address.

  5. On to Land, Part One: Feed Me « Uncommon Scolds Says:

    […] posts of 15 Feb. 2010 “When the Well Is Dry, We Know the Worth of Water” and 17 Feb. 2010 “When the Well Is Dry, Part 2″ are on […]

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