China’s water woes revealed

James McDaniel

Jennifer Turner, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum in Washington, gave a talk titled “Water is for Fighting: Water Conflicts and Crises in China and the United States” Tuesday, Feb. 3 as part of the Spoerl Lecture Series on water and its management.
The first part of her title comes from Mark Twain, who commented, “Whiskey is for drinkin’, water is for fightin.'”
Turner said China’s water supply currently faces a “triple threat”: shortage, pollution and infrastructure. Looking at water scarcity, Turner gave examples of desertification in northern China, pointing out that the Yellow River, one of China’s major rivers, now regularly runs dry before reaching the sea.
She also noted the extreme glacial melt on the Tibetan Plateau caused by climate change, remarking on a predicted 75-percent retreat in glaciers there by 2050. Glacier water supplies fresh drinking water to millions in China and India.
What water China has available has become highly polluted. Two-thirds of the Yellow River’s water is no longer fit for human consumption, yet over 190 million people in China are forced to drink this water, which makes them ill.
“Every two to three days there is a major chemical spill on a river in China,” Turner commented. She turned to explain the Songhua benzene spill in Jilin province during 2005 that caused the major city of Harbin, Heilongjiang to shut off its water for weeks, sparking major unrest. To keep things punny, Turner noted that it was a “watershed” moment in China’s environmental movement.
Turner made a point to explain that China’s government has been undergoing a heavy decentralization process for the past 30 years. Local governments currently wield more power than ever, leading to levels of high local corruption. She did claim, however, that Beijing could still push for reform on major issues, such as recently passed water laws.
This localized power relates directly to dam-building, which is part of the infrastructure problem. Local governments glean profits off of the projects, while local peoples bare the brunt of the environmental degradation, often forcing them to move to accommodate the reservoirs that are created by the projects.
Unsatisfied with the neglect from local and central governments, many Chinese citizens have turned to open protest. Turner quoted Pan Yue, the No. 1 deputy director of China’s State Environmental Protection Agency, as reporting that there are about 51,000 environmental protests per year. Turner says her own sources have concluded that of those, at least 5,000 are major protests of 100 or more people.
She gives the example of Xiamen in which 7,000 to 20,000 people shut down the city to protest the building of a chemical plant. As Turner looked across the audience, she admitted that this particular protest started from a college environmental group whose students’ text messaging about the plans for the chemical plant helped spark the protest, which was successful and nonviolent on both the part of the protestors and the police.
Turner’s speech was dripping with puns on water, such as an anecdote about environmental journalists “flooding” to the Nujiang river area to protest the building of dams along this second-to-last free-flowing river in Yunnan province.
Hoping to end her talk on the positive, Turner commented, “Over the past eight years, China’s environmental policies have been more progressive than our own!” and to make sure there were just enough witticisms involved, she added, “It all boils down to water.” For more information on the China Environment Forum, please visit
Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. in Science 102, the Spoerl series will continue, featuring Lawrence class of ’99 graduate Phil McKenna. His talk is titled “What China is Doing Right Environmentally.