China Confronts Looming Water Shortages

BEIJING—The Chinese government plans to spend a whopping $600 billion (4 trillion renminbi) over the next 10 years on measures to ensure adequate water supplies for the country. But scientists who have glimpsed the details of the grand effort worry that it may end up harming wetlands and may be ineffective, as several ministries that handle water issues work poorly together.

Much of northern China is in the grips of a months-long drought that could threaten yields of wheat and other crops this spring. Exacerbating the problem are a rapidly retreating groundwater table in the north (Science, 18 June 2010, p. 1462) and pollution of major waterways. Seeking a long-term solution, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council announced on 29 January the massive investment, which aims to achieve sustainable water use by controlling total water consumption, improving irrigation efficiency, and restricting groundwater pumping, among other measures.

Scientists welcome the initiative. "It's an important opportunity for China's water conservation," says Liu Changming, a hydrologist at the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences here. But because the plan emphasizes provision of water for human activity, some scientists worry that it may end up diverting water from wetlands and other fragile ecosystems. To prevent that from occurring, the government should fund "a systemic study that will quantify the needs of water resources for ecosystems in specific places and a well-developed regulation to assure ecological water use," says Peng Gong, an ecologist at Tsinghua University here and the University of California, Berkeley.

The initiative's success may also require creating new regulations to encourage data sharing across agencies. The establishment of interagency institutes might be one solution, says Gong, who adds that it will be difficult to implement the holistic policy laid out in the water initiative without breaking down bureaucratic barriers.

Posted in Asia