Climate Change and Water Scarcity in China

13th November 2012

“Climate Change and Water Scarcity in China” was the tenth in the China Low Carbon Leadership Network 2011-2012 event series jointly organized by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and China Carbon Forum (CCF). 67 representatives of government, NGOs, business and media joined GIZ and CCF to discuss climate change and water scarcity in China.

China is a country with severe water shortages, and Northern China is particularly dry. There clearly lies a complex set of relationships between climate change and water scarcity, both from a scientific perspective (supply side), and a socio-economic perspective (demand side). For China, the challenge lies on both supply and demand sides. Improving water efficiency is an important first step, but climate change is expected to continue to cause a more unreliable water supply and therefore exacerbate water scarcity in China. The evolution of water use efficiency improvements and water distribution will be an ongoing task for all nations, and sharing institutional and technological knowledge will continue to play an important role.

  • In January 2012 China’s State Council released a document on China’s proposed stringent water management system. Parts of this system aim to respond to the threat posed by climate change, with a focus on adaptation. The stringent water management system comprises three main parts: water allocation, water saving policy, and water resource protection.
  • At the national policy level, there is a focus on water efficiency over the long term. China will develop water use efficiency targets and, by 2030, establish a national water cap.
  • China’s water distribution system aims to reallocate water from China’s wetter South to the drier North, as well as to some specific industrial regions. The stringent water management system will see direct investments made by central government. One of the focuses of the national investment will be on investment in infrastructure for irrigation and emergency water reservoirs in China’s southwest. Both surface and underground water protection – quantity and quality – are a key part of the central government’s planning.
  • Predicting the future supply and demand of China’s water through modelling (using the Water Energy Process model – WEP) still holds significant uncertainty, especially on the scientific side. Yet most models show increasing strain on China’s water resources in relation to future climate change.
  • On the supply side, the models’ outcomes demonstrate that a 2.5 degree celsius temperature rise may cause a 20.7% reduction in the available groundwater in Haihe River Basin. On the demand side, the model simulation forecast for 1-2.5 celsius rises in temperature shows that precipitation will increase 3-5% in South China, but the water demand for energy production (for cooling) in the Northern area will increase 5-10%.
  • It was considered that China is past the point of peak per capita water consumption – all supply sources have been exploited – and that it is now mainly up to demand side management in a world where climate change will continue to increase the volatility and uncertainty of water supply.
  • Comparing Europe and China, there are both similarities and differences when it comes to addressing the climate change and water scarcity challenge. Like China, the EU‘s adaptation policy is founded in the existing institutions, both at nation, state and central levels. However, the EU is addressing water scarcity in a post-urbanisation era with established structures, while China still faces these development challenges with urban population projected to rise from 50% to 70% by 2030. 
  • Experience from Europe was that shifting responsibility of water resource management to local level governments was more effective – those most directly affected by water use – and that through capacity building at the local level, China could also look to shift responsibility of water resource management to these levels.
  • A case was provided discussing the importance of reforestation to the restoration of groundwater in the watersheds of rivers. Here, a double benefit exists for dealing with climate change. Firstly, watershed protection helps with climate change adaptation, through stabilising the surface run-off from the watershed and recharging its underground water resource. Secondly, it provides a climate mitigation benefit, as the reforestation of the watershed acts as a carbon sink. The specific case was the Yangtze and Pearl River Watershed Rehabilitation Project, which over a 25 year period will capture / sequester 12-15 million ton Carbon, enough to offset the CO2 emissions of 1500 return trips of fully loaded aircraft between China to Europe each year. Guangzhou is looking at ways to integrate this type of carbon sequestration projects into its pilot ETS. Focusing on improving underground water supply through watershed restoration could be a cheaper alternative to large infrastructure and water reservoir projects.
  • Sufficient pricing of water was seen as a key to managing demand side management, but this would need to be designed carefully to ensure low income groups are not adversely affected.

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