- TIANJIN, China - When people
living along the Duliujian look out across the once-broad river these days,
it is often with tears in their eyes.
- The reason is not sorrow, though their sorrow is great.
The tears come from the toxic fumes of chemical-plant wastes that are still
dumped into the riverbed even though there is no longer any water to flush
- ``The smell in the morning is so terrible that people
burst into tears,'' said Li Jianping, who runs a small restaurant on the
river's bank. ``Sometimes they can't open their eyes.''
- Losing the crucial water source on the southern edge
of Tianjin, an industrial city of 9 million people in northeastern China,
has had a devastating impact on the local agriculture and tourist industries.
But the drying up of the polluted Duliujian over the past two years is
just part of a much larger problem.
- China is running out of water, and much of the remaining
supply is so polluted by human and industrial waste it is unfit for consumption
or even irrigation.
- More than half of China's cities have serious water shortages.
More than 80 percent of its rivers are so foul that fish cannot survive
in them. About 700 million people -- more than half the population -- drink
water contaminated with levels of animal and human waste that do not meet
minimum drinking water standards, according to the Washington-based World
- ``Water is China's No. 1 environmental problem,'' said
Sheri Liao, who heads one of China's few independent environmental groups,
- It may not be only China's problem for long. Lester Brown,
president of the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington-based non-profit environmental
research group, said in an interview that China's worsening water shortage
has global implications: The rapid and irreversible fall of the country's
water tables could soon mean rising food prices for the entire world.
- That's because China's water shortage will prevent it
from growing enough food to feed its increasing population and meet higher
expectations as living standards rise. Already China's leaders have abandoned
their long-standing policy of remaining self-sufficient in grain, conceding
that demand increasingly will exceed domestic supply.
- Brown argues that China's fast-growing economy will allow
it to outbid other water-scarce countries for food, creating competition
that will raise prices and create food shortages in poorer countries.
- Chinese academics and government officials have long
criticized Brown, arguing that he wrongly portrays China as a threat to
the rest of the world. They contend that China can increase food production
to meet its growing needs, but that because its arable land is limited,
buying part of its grain on the world market is a better strategy.
- Pressure on food market
- Brown estimates that by 2030 China will import more than
200 million tons of grain per year, an amount equivalent to the current
total of world grain exports. But he said the disruptive effects on global
food markets will be felt much sooner.
- What gives Brown confidence in his grim predictions is
a growing body of evidence that China's water shortage is quickly reaching
a crucial juncture. As the population has more than doubled to 1.25 billion
over the past 50 years, water consumption has soared and thousands of lakes,
rivers and reservoirs have been drained.
- Even the famed Yellow River, whose fertile basin was
the cradle of Chinese civilization, has become an inland stream. After
flowing into the East China Sea without interruption for thousands of years,
it has run dry for part of each year since 1985, its water siphoned off
for agriculture, industry and urban residents.
- Depleted surface water has led to more dependence on
underground supplies. But those too are running dry.
- Fifty years ago, according to environmentalist Liao,
well diggers on the Beijing plain typically had to drill only 15 feet to
reach water. Now they have to go down about 150 feet. Some experts have
begun to warn that China eventually may have to relocate its capital unless
Beijing's chronic water shortage can somehow be solved.
- Roughly the same rate of water depletion suffered by
Beijing has occurred across northern China. A survey two years ago by China
Agricultural University in Beijing indicated that the water table under
much of the North China Plain, which produces about 40 percent of China's
grain, had fallen an average of about 5 feet per year over the previous
- Water experts disagree on how much water remains in China's
aquifers. Chen Jingsheng, a professor of urban and environmental sciences
at Peking University, said in an interview that no good estimates are available.
- But there is no disagreement over the fact that the aquifers
eventually will run dry if China continues to pump more water out of them
than nature restores. Once that happens, agricultural output will plummet,
because 70 percent of China's crops rely on irrigation.
- Brown predicts that irrigated agriculture on the Beijing-Tianjin
plain, a major grain-growing area with about 100 million residents, will
end within 10 years, cutting yields in half.
- The draining of aquifers already is so serious that many
surface areas of China, including the eastern suburbs of the nation's capital,
are sinking. This week, the director of the Shanghai Water Supply Administration
told the China Daily newspaper that Shanghai, China's economic capital
and largest port, also has been sinking, largely because of using too much
- After decades of denial, the government has begun to
acknowledge the problems. It has begun investing in new water treatment
facilities and has launched numerous conservation and cleanup campaigns.
- Untreated sewage
- But those efforts have not kept pace with the creation
of wastes. The Washington-based World Resources Institute recently estimated
that more than 30 billion tons of urban sewage is discharged each year
into China's rivers, lakes or seas, and less than 2.7 percent receives
any treatment. In the countryside, where the majority of Chinese live,
the amount of domestic and industrial waste treated is even lower.
- Those massive discharges have turned most of China's
surface water sources into toxic soups spiked with large quantities of
parasites, bacteria, viruses, acids, alkali, nitrogen, phosphate, phenols,
cyanide, lead, cadmium and mercury.
- Most underground water also has been poisoned, because
the surface contaminants seep into aquifers.
- Environmental and health monitoring in China is spotty,
but illnesses ranging from dysentery to stomach cancer have been linked
to polluted water. Particularly vulnerable are children, whose physical
and mental development can be impaired by exposure to environmental poisons.
One study showed that children growing up near toxic Weishan Lake in coastal
Shandong province averaged six points lower on IQ tests than children in
a control group.
- The worst is yet to come, because water use and water
pollution are both going up.
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