What the world can learn from China’s water crisis

MICHIGAN STATE (US) — China’s problems with water shortages and pollution are daunting—though not unique.

In this week’s Science magazine, researchers from Michigan State University look at lessons learned in China and management strategies that hold solutions for China, and across the world.

Jianguo “Jack” Liu, director of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, and doctoral student Wu Yang outline China’s water crisis and recent leapfrog investment in water conservancy, and suggest addressing complex human-nature interactions for long-term water supply and quality.

Two-thirds of China’s cities have water shortages, more than 40 percent of its rivers are severely polluted, 80 percent of its lakes suffer from eutrophication—an overabundance of nutrients—and about 300 million rural residents lack access to safe drinking water.

Water can unleash fury. Recent floods in Beijing overwhelmed drainage systems, resulting in scores of deaths. Water shortages also may have contributed to recent massive power outages in India as rural farmers stressed a fragile grid by pumping water for irrigation during drought.

China has dedicated enormous resources—some $635 billion worth—which represents a quadrupling of investment in the next decade, mainly for engineering measures.

“There is an inescapable complexity with water,” Liu says. “When you generate energy, you need water; when you produce food, you need water. However, to provide more water, more energy and more land are needed, thus creating more challenges for energy and food production, which in turn use more water and pollute more water.”

Goals often contradict each other, he adds.

“Everybody wants something, but doesn’t take a systems approach that is essential for us to see the whole picture,” Liu says.

Solutions, he says, come from looking at issues from multiple points of view at the same time. That’s the way to avoid the unintended consequences that plague China’s water and a way to prevent a water crisis from becoming a water catastrophe.

The work is funded by the National Science Foundation and MSU AgBioResearch.

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