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China Facing Water Scarcity

April 22, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ New satellite evidence of water scarcity in China is fueling concern that the country’s agricultural production will fall, forcing it to become a major grain importer and eventually driving up world grain prices.

``Emerging water shortages are threatening China’s grain production as rivers are drained dry and aquifers are depleted by the country’s soaring water needs,″ said Lester Brown, head of Worldwatch Institute, which released a report on the problem Wednesday.

Since a threat to China’s water supplies can affect the stability of world food supplies and regional stability overall, the report said, China’s ``deteriorating water situation has become a source of concern for governments and grain-importing countries.″

The Yellow River has run dry every year for more than a decade, failing to reach the sea for 226 days in 1997. The Huai, a river flowing through China’s breadbasket regions, did not make it to the sea for 90 days. Satellite photos show hundreds of lakes shrinking and local streams vanishing as water tables fall and Chinese farmers dig ever-deeper wells, the Worldwatch report said.

The document suggested that as a result, China’s need for grain early in the next century could total up to 370 million metric tons a year, or 1.5 times the current level of world grain exports. China now imports only minimal quantities.

The Worldwatch report is based in part on a November 1997 analysis by the National Intelligence Council, an umbrella group of senior advisers to the CIA director.

However, their conclusions vary widely. Where Worldwatch predicted China might need to import 370 million tons of grain a year, the NIC predicted grain imports would not exceed 175 million tons. And the NIC said the 175 million tons is ``not beyond the capacity of grain-exporting countries″ to fulfill.

In addition, using imagery provided by both classified and open satellite systems, the NIC found China’s arable land totaled some 346 million acres. Worldwatch, by contrast, used a figure of 235 million obtained from official Chinese statistics.

A recent Chinese survey reported that the water table beneath much of the North China Plain, a region that produces 40 percent of the nation’s grain, has fallen an average of 5 feet per year over the last five years.

A U.S. intelligence official familiar with the NIC study said, ``China can maintain food self-sufficiency by liberalizing agricultural practices, adopting an aggressive research program and implementing a sustainable land management program.″

For instance, it could grow more fruits and vegetables, sell those abroad and use the income to buy grain, said the official, who declined to be identified.

Mark Rosengrant, an analyst with the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, said increased diversion of water for use by China’s booming industry could lead to a water shortfall. However, he predicted farmers worldwide would respond to the situation, leading to higher supplies to meet the demand.

Smaller nations such as Israel and Saudi Arabia already have confronted problems caused by a collision between their growing demand for water and their limited supply, but China will be the first major food producer to do so, Worldwatch said.

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