Water crisis must be given highest priority

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 April, 2010, 12:00am

Farmers bearing the brunt of the drought ravaging the nation's southwest have a right to be angry.The government has poured a considerable chunk of the proceeds from three decades of sustained economic growth into massive infrastructure projects, but ensuring a steady supply of a basic element of existence - water - has been neglected. As lakes and wells dry up and yet another drilling rig fails to strike a new source, the prospects of those on the land in this region evaporate.

There is no better wake-up call to authorities, and priority has to finally be given to what looms as a national crisis. At least 22 million people and 7.4 million hectares of farmland are affected in the provinces of Guangxi , Guizhou, Yunnan and Sichuan . Those living in rural areas are most vulnerable - as crops and livestock die, so, too, does income and food supply. But water shortages are widespread far beyond drought-hit areas. For a start, China has a chronic water deficit. The country has 22 per cent of the world's population but only 7 per cent of its fresh water. This limited supply is increasingly depleted by surging demand, mismanagement, pollution and waste.

For a government so worried about harmony and stability, the figures should long ago have prompted urgent action. More than half of the country's 1.3 billion people and two-thirds of cities and towns do not have clean water. In consequence, 190 million people needlessly fall ill each year and 60,000 die prematurely. Decades-old irrigation systems have fallen into disrepair and dams allowed to silt up. World Bank statistics show that about 65 per cent of all water goes to agriculture, but less than half reaches crops because of leaking pipes and evaporation.

The lack of recycling means that virtually all of the 25 per cent of water used by industry goes untreated into river systems; in developed countries, up to 85 per cent is reused. But most problematic are the government subsidies that keep the cost of water artificially low.

Droughts are beyond human control, but policies and infrastructure can alleviate and resolve shortfalls. Wells can be dug, water diverted from elsewhere and dams built. Technology such as recycling and desalination can be used and crops that require minimal moisture planted. Crucially, water should be charged for at a price that reflects its scarcity. Subsidies should be given only to those people who genuinely cannot afford to pay the market value.

Three decades of growth averaging 9.9 per cent a year means China can take on the biggest of projects. Its choice has been high-profile ones that stimulate the economy and generate large-scale employment: hydro-electric dams, rail lines, highways and the like. Rampant corruption also makes such schemes far more appealing for officials and contractors than lesser ones involving irrigation.

Authorities have, for years, acknowledged the problem, yet only recently began trying to counter it. More than 50 billion yuan (HK$56.7 billion) has been invested in 2,700 water treatment projects. Further hundreds of billions have been ear-marked to move water from the south to north, although the project has been much delayed by resistance from 300,000 people who will be forced from their homes. Despite such investment, ensuring reliable supplies of safe water is still too low on the government's agenda. To avert major declines in agricultural production, soaring health care costs, loss of productivity and unemployment, the issue has to be given the highest policy priority.