Water Resources Minister Wang Shucheng talks to Shi Jiangtao and Josephine Ma about the mainland's plan to ration a dwindling resource
The mainland's growing water shortages will become so severe that rationing will become one of authorities' main strategies for dealing with a crisis expected to last for more than 20 years.
Inevitably, the growing crisis will require an urgent response from authorities, who are planning to spend billions of yuan every year on reservoirs and water diversion projects and repairing the damaged environment. According to Minister of Water Resources Wang Shucheng , the key strategy is conservation, with rationing providing a powerful incentive to reduce consumption.
'Infrastructure projects alone would not be able to address the worsening water shortages,' he said. 'China's population will peak in 2030 to hit nearly 1.6 billion, and available water resources per capita will drop to 1,700 cubic metres, which is lower than the international safety level of 1,800 cubic metres.'
Water resources per capita in the country stood at about 2,200 cubic metres - less than a third of the world average - and will drop considerably over the next two decades, Mr Wang said.
While the authorities have pumped billions of yuan into various schemes - from diversion to desalination - Mr Wang said a rationing system for every province, factory and household would be a more effective solution. He likened water rationing to land reform in the 1950s: 'Rationing water should continue to be done in the same way as land reform.'
A few years ago experiments in Zhangye , Gansu province , Mianyang , Sichuan province , and Dalian , in Liaoning province , began testing the feasibility of rationing water for irrigation and industrial use.
In Zhangye, for example, farmers were given water coupons for irrigation which local authorities would buy back at a premium if they were not used. Farmers could also trade their coupons on the market while those who consumed more than their quota paid a premium for the extra water. The system provided strong incentives for farmers to cut water use.
The ministry has also started rationing water from the Yellow River. In an experiment, several new power plants along the Yellow River have had to buy a water quota from irrigation areas.
Mr Wang said the government was working to build a two-tier rationing system. At the macro level, quotas would be set for specific regions and industries according to the water resources available. At the micro level, quotas would be as specific as how much cooling water would be necessary to produce a tonne of steel or irrigate one mu of land.
Mr Wang said the government would spend the next three years formulating a comprehensive plan for the resources available from each major river and then determine the macro quotas for rationing.
Ultimately, each household would be given a quota, which would depend on the overall quota given to each city.
'For example, in Yinchuan city [of Ningxia ] each resident will be rationed to 100 litres a day, or three cubic metres per month. Then an average household will be restricted to 12 cubic metres per month,' he said.
'The 12 cubic metres of water are basic rights and the prices should be affordable for the unemployed and poor people. However, if you have a shower every day, like the people in the south who love to have showers, or if you have a swimming pool, you will have to pay more because you enjoy what others cannot enjoy.'
Southern cities would have a higher quota for domestic use due to more abundant water resources, and some cities could have a per capita water quota of 200 to 250 litres per day, he said. 'Southern cities are hotter and people there like to have showers all the time. They also have the [resources] to have more showers.'
Guangdong started a trial in March to ration water for industrial, agricultural and domestic use. Each resident is rationed to 210 litres a day and higher prices are charged for water exceeding the quota, according to state media.
Mr Wang said water rationing was necessary and far more important than any other kind of hydraulic project. 'It is something we must do. Otherwise, no matter how many projects we build, they will still be useless.'
However, he admitted rationing could face resistance. In Beijing, for example, a plan to ration water for domestic use had been delayed because there were too many officials living in the capital.
'It is more difficult to implement in Beijing because Beijing is pretty special. There are lots of officials, or civil servants,' he said. 'Each of them may have several apartments. As we use a household as a unit for water rationing, how should we calculate?'
Mr Wang said China's water crisis was so serious now that more than 400 cities were badly affected, particularly in the vast rural areas of the northern and coastal regions, with an estimated 300 million people deprived of clean water.
The two main indicators for the quality of the water environment - the use of water from underground sources and water taken from rivers - had also deteriorated.
According to Mr Wang, development would not be sustainable if water tables dropped much further. Also, ecological systems along a river would be affected if the use of its water exceeded 40 per cent of the total amount.
'Underground water levels in China's north continued to go down last year.'
Waterways in the drought-hit north remained heavily polluted and the use of water from some rivers had almost reached its maximum level, with sewage being used again in farming activities.
While more than 60 per cent of water in the Yellow River has been consumed by the millions of people living alongside the river, the usage of water in the Hai River, which covers Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei , reached almost 100 per cent.
'All rivers in the region run dry and no water is clean,' Mr Wang warned.
To illustrate the devastation of the Hai River, the minister cited as an example farmers in Tianjin who used waste water discharged from Beijing for irrigation. Instead of then eating their own produce, farmers usually sold it in neighbouring cities, such as Beijing.
But Mr Wang remained optimistic about finding an effective solution.
He noted that consumption had dropped markedly in major cities in the north and east thanks to the conservation efforts and restrictions on industrial usage.
He also dismissed suggestions that advanced desalination technology could provide a solution.
'It is simply too expensive compared with conservation efforts and water-diversion projects,' he said.
The cost of diverting the Yangtze River to Beijing along the South-North Water Diversion Project would be about 3 yuan per cubic metre, while water from desalination technology costs more than 5 yuan per cubic metre, he said.