Around 90% of China’s electrical grid depends on abundant water resources, which will be threatened by the water crisis, and only coal can solve that, which could trigger a global catastrophe.
China’s water crisis is nothing new, but it has become worse and is now “on the brink of catastrophe,” according to Foreign Affairs, and might lead to a global catastrophe.
Given the country’s overriding importance to the global economy, potential water-driven disruptions beginning in China would rapidly reverberate through food, energy, and materials markets around the world and create economic and political turbulence for years to come. -Foreign Affairs
To begin with, there is no substitute for water, which is necessary for the production of food, the generation of power, and the sustaining of all life on Earth.
China’s water infrastructure in northern China has reached unsustainable levels as a result of decades of economic and population growth. China consumes ten billion barrels of water per day (about 700 times as much as it consumes of oil daily).
The per-capita supply around the North China Plain at the end of 2020, at 253 cubic metres, was over 50% below the UN’s definition of acute water scarcity, the report claims. Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin, three more significant cities, are at comparable (or lower) levels.
Egypt, by contrast, had freshwater resources per capita of only 570 cubic metres and a much smaller manufacturing base than China.
Not fit for human consumption
According to China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, 19% of China’s surface water is unfit for human consumption. About 7% of it was declared completely useless.
The situation with groundwater was worse; it was deemed unfit for use or drinking in 16% of cases.
Beijing will need to invest heavily in treatment facilities in order to make use of this water, and this will result in a huge rise in the amount of electricity used to power the equipment.
China’s agricultural and industrial sectors, which dump pollutants into the country’s groundwater and may pave the way for decades more of impairments, stand in the way of progress.
Data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization indicate that China uses nearly two and a half times as much fertilizer and four times as much pesticide as the United States does despite having 25 percent less arable land.
For decades, Beijing has generally chosen to conceal the full extent of China’s environmental problems to limit potential public backlash and to avoid questions about the competence and capacity of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This lack of transparency suggests that an escalation to acute water distress could be far closer than most outside observers realize—increasing the chances that the world will be ill prepared for such a calamity. -Foreign Affairs
The main issue is the overpumping of aquifers beneath the Northern China Plain, which, according to NASA GRACE satellites, are more overdrawn than those beneath the US’s Ogallala Aquifer, one of the most threatened supplies of agricultural water in the world.
When subsurface aquifers collapse due to low groundwater levels, it can result in a phenomena known as land subsidence that can cause the ground to collapse across wide areas, perhaps rendering the aquifer unusable in the future.
Beijing started the “South-to-North Water Transfer Project” in 2003 to use Yangtze River water to replenish the north.
China, however, has used cloud seeding technologies to inject liquid nitrogen or silver iodide into the clouds to induce rain. Heavy industries have also been moved from dry areas.
China may end up spending $100 billion yearly on water-related projects, according to Wei Shanzhong, vice minister of water resources, who made the prediction in April 2022.
However, it might not be enough.
Despite highly innovative programs to improve water availability, some scholars estimate that water supply could fall short of demand by 25 percent by 2030—a situation that would by definition force major adjustments in society. Experiences to date on the North China Plain enhance concern and illustrate the scale of additional needed hydraulic intervention. Despite nearly a decade of importing Yangtze valley water supplies to high-stress areas such as Beijing, large-scale depletion of stored groundwater continues in other nearby areas, such as Hebei and Tianjin. -Foreign Affairs
There will naturally be less food when the drought gets worse.
60% of China’s wheat, 45% of its corn, 35% of its cotton, and 64% of its peanuts are produced in the at-risk North China Plain, where annual wheat production of more than 80 million tonnes is comparable to that of Russia, and annual corn production of 125 million tonnes is almost three times that of pre-war Ukraine.
Water is being pumped to farms faster than nature can replenish it in order to support these crops. According to satellite data, Northern China lost as much groundwater between 2003 and 2010 as Beijing uses per year, leaving farmers scrambling to find other supplies.
China would need to import almost 20% of the world’s corn and 13% of the world’s wheat if the North China Plain experiences a 33% crop loss due to water shortage.
Although China has stockpiled the world’s largest grain reserves, the country is not immune to a multiyear yield shortfall. This would likely force China’s food traders, including large state-owned enterprises such as COFCO and Sinograin, into global markets on an emergency basis to secure additional supplies. This in turn could trigger food price spikes in high-income countries, while rendering key food items economically inaccessible to hundreds of millions of people in poorer countries. The impacts of this water-driven food shortage could be far worse than the food-related unrest that swept across lower- and middle-income countries in 2007 and 2008 and would drive migration and exacerbate political polarization already present in Europe and the United States. -Foreign Affairs
A shocking problem
Around 90% of China’s electrical grid depends on abundant water resources, “particularly hydro, coal, and even nuclear generation, which needs large and steady water supplies for steam condensers and to cool reactor cores and used fuel rods,” according to the report. China’s water woes stretch beyond agriculture.
China would need to expand energy generation by alternative sources by an amount comparable to what Egypt consumes in a year if it lost 15% of its hydropower production in any given year due to low water levels, and only coal would be able to do that.
The mining and preparation of coal, however, also uses a lot of water. The few coastal coal sources can be cooled by the sea, but most of the sooty resource is found inland and depends on groundwater, rivers, and lakes.