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China’s Unsustainable Water Demand and its Desertification Crisis

S2001080041432.L1A_HJMS.ChinaDust_mdBeijing, China: Recent comments by Chinese officials detailing progress in the ongoing battle against desertification (encroaching deserts) has highlighted the role excessive and unsustainable water demand plays in exacerbating the ecological crisis.

In comments made at a media conference in China earlier this month, officials estimated it would take over 300 years to return some 530,000 square kilometres of desert areas in the country to grassed, arable land.

They quoted from a survey covering the years 2005-2009, which found that 2.62 million square kilometers of Chinese land was degraded, Zhu Lieke, deputy head of the State Forestry Administration (SFA), told reporters. Zhu added that sand encroachment had affected 1.73 million square kilometers of land, according to a Jan. 4 Peoples Daily report.

While claiming a small victory with a reduction of 12,454 sq km of desertified land area since 2006, authorities admit the degradation remains one of China’s worst environmental problems.

“China is still a country with the largest area of desertified land in the world. As well, about 310,000 sq km are susceptible to desertification,” said Zhu.

Desertification, described by the UN in 2007 as “…the greatest environmental challenge of our times,” is defined as the “…gradual transformation of arable and habitable land into desert” according to the Pulitzer Gateway Water Wars portal. Now arguably China’s most pressing ecological crisis, the country’s battle with desertification has been brought on by a number of factors. These include the widespread use of poor farming methods such as overgrazing and unsustainable water use, as well as burgeoning population growth and increasing temperatures due to climate change.

However it is the link between water resources — the lack of rainfall and over extraction of groundwater — that has been a key factor in the spread of desertification. Zhu said that excessive groundwater extraction coupled with a lack of rainfall had exacerbated the situation, contributing to the growth of desert areas in the northwest part of Sichuan province and areas in the lower reaches of the Tarim River.

According to an Oxfam UK fact sheet on the encroaching desert crisis, the overuse of water resources for agriculture is seen as a major cause of desertification in many parts of the world.

“The cultivation of crops requires large amounts of water, a resource that is in short supply in arid lands. To tackle this problem, farmers have developed irrigation systems to bring water from springs, oases and underground sources elsewhere in the desert.”

The study said the pressure on food producers to increase their output due to population growth had caused many of them to over extract precious water supplies.

“In many cases this does not pose a threat to the environment, and centuries of experience have taught farmers how to extract water with minimum environmental impact. However, the increased pressure placed on food producers by population growth has led to the adoption of unsustainable irrigation practices, draining in a very short space of time the water sources which may have taken thousands of years to accumulate.”

The report said such over extraction of water supplies had a destabilizing effect on the surrounding ecosystem, resulting in many cases in desertification and degradation of the soil.

“The climatic extremes of the deserts make them extremely fragile ecosystems. With such a small amount of water available to support wildlife, any disturbance is potentially disastrous. All ecosystems exist in a more or less delicate balance, and the desert is perhaps the most extreme case. With all forms of life linked to one another, a change in the availability of water can affect the smallest plants and the largest animals alike.”

Chinese officials have said that they are also concerned that water resources — along with food supplies — could be severely impacted by desertification.

However despite the grim figures released in the study, many Chinese officials believe that they are making progress against the scourge and that the country is now tackling its environmental degradation problems, including the pollution and degradation of its water supplies.

“There is about 1.73m sq km (0.67m sq miles) of desertified land in China, and about 530,000 sq km of that can be treated”, said Liu Tuo, head of the Chinese bureau fighting desertification in the country.

Prof Pan Jiahua, executive director of the sustainable development research centre at the Chinese academy of social sciences agreed.

“China is at a peak. I think from now on we will go down in terms of environmental degradation as the economy continues to grow,” said Pan in an interview with the Guardian newspaper last month.

 

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