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Freshwater Supply Woes of China and the Colorado River Basin

Kc obtained his Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and is passionate about all things pertaining to biochemistry.

How many of you wake up each day and take for granted your ability to access clean drinking water? For many, access to clean drinking water is a concept unknown to them, while for others it is becoming increasing harder to obtain this precious commodity.

The Reality of Earth’s Freshwater Supply

When one looks at a visual representation of the Earth, with its vast, sprawling oceans it is easy to be tricked into believing that water supply, or lack thereof, should never be an issue for its inhabitants. This is not true, for although close to 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered in water only 3 percent of this is freshwater, which is much easier and less costly to process than saline water.

Most of our freshwater (over 60 percent) is locked away in glaciers and ice caps. Only 0.3 percent of the earth’s freshwater is found in the surface water of lakes, rivers, and swamps and is easily accessible to us. What’s more surprising is that only 0.007 of our freshwater supply is accessible to and usable by humans.

So the stark reality is that our water supply is quite finite, and according to the United Nations water use has grown at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century. This coupled with mismanagement of freshwater supplies, pollution, damming of rivers, and droughts in recent years have led to dwindling water supplies and damage to ecosystems.

If you thought that was bad the future doesn’t look so great either, experts believe that by 2025 an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas beset by water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas created by use, growth, and climate change.

A diagram showing the distribution of water on Earth.

A diagram showing the distribution of water on Earth.

China’s Water Crisis

With a population of about 1.3 billion China is home to around 20 percent of the world’s population, yet it only has 7 percent of the world’s freshwater supply. China’s freshwater supply continues to dwindle as contaminants such as chemicals, heavy metals, and untreated human waste puts limits on the amount of water that is safe for human consumption.

In response to China’s rapidly increasing population and water consumption, China has set a water usage cap. Residents in the city of Lintao, a Chinese city located in the Gansu province which is home to nearly 200,000 people, are forced to collect water in containers and ration it because the city frequently runs out of water. But Lintao isn’t the only city plagued by water shortage; most cities in the northern region of China also share a similar fate.

And what is China’s brilliant solution to the problem? Build a series of waterways and canals to transfer water from southern rivers to the water-scarce north. One of these canals was completed in 2014 and began drawing water from the Han River into Beijing. However, officials in charge of the project based their calculations on the Han River’s water flow between the 1950s and 1990s when water flow was much higher. “From 2001 to 2010, the water in the Han River decreased by more than 7 billion cubic meters,” states retired hydrologist Lui. With the Han River’s water level now dropping, it’s believed that diversion of water from the Han River to Beijing will only serve to exacerbate China’s water woes.

Global Repercussions

Despite all this, China’s water shortage may not be the least of its worries. 97 percent of China’s electric power requires water to generate. If China’s water shortage continues to worsen, then China may possibly face an energy crisis as well, a crisis China would do well to avoid. China’s water crisis may even begin to affect the world on a global scale. The main competitors for water use in China are agriculture and industry. Both activities combined consume about 85 percent of China’s water supply, and while only 31 percent of agriculture water use occurs in water scarce areas, the majority of industrial use (51 percent) occurs in water scarce regions.

Competition between the two for water resources may lead to increased production costs. Since China is one of the main exporters of agricultural goods, it is likely that global trade prices will take a hike in the future. Consumers as far away as the United States may feel the effects of China’s water shortage through their wallets as an increase in food prices in supermarkets. Experts speculate that in the next 14 years China’s water supply will not be able to meet its water demand if no changes are made. If this turns out to be true, then China’s water scarcity could very well be the greatest danger China has ever faced.

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A satellite image of the Han river.

A satellite image of the Han river.

The Colorado River Running Dry

On the other side of the globe, the Colorado River stretches from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California, winding its way through seven U.S states and two Mexican states as it makes its way towards the sea. For six million years the Colorado River flowed freely carving out the landscape that is now the Great Canyon. Its course takes it through some of the aridest regions in the U.S.—Nevada and Arizona just to name a few—but in the past, the river never ran dry.

However, things began to change in the 1920s when plans were made to build dams along the river’s path. The population of cities on the west coast began expanding, but the availability of water placed limits on the development of land. To make matters worse, states like California and Arizona were known to experience drought which made water scarce at times. Faced with expansion and an unsteady water supply, the Colorado River Compact began to lay down plans to build a series of dams along the Colorado River. The dams would act as hydropower stations, as well as, reservoirs of water during the dry season which would ensure a steady supply of water to western states. Completion of the dams may have created a steady supply of water but it also created problems which would become more and more pronounced as the years went by. Rivers downstream of a dam receive less water, and the Colorado River now had several dams along its course.

Construction of Glen Canyon Dam, just south of the Arizona/Utah border, began in 1956 and was completed in 1966. In the years following the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam most years the Colorado River would not make it to the Sea of Cortes in Mexico, and now only about one-tenth of the river’s former flow makes it into Mexico. At reservoirs, as much as 15 percent of the basin’s water is lost through evaporation each year.

The Larger Picture

Today, 30 million people rely on the Colorado River for domestic use and irrigation. Water is diverted from the river to cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas to fill pools, water lawns, and for use in extravagant water displays. In the face of drought and water scarcity, I’d call that very irresponsible use of water, but humans are humans and we (as intelligent as we may claim to be) oftentimes seek out temporary pleasure at the expense of our future. On another note, farming now accounts for 70 percent of water consumption, with farmers siphoning off large amounts of water to water their parched fields and feed their animals.

The Colorado River has become a hub for all kinds of water sports. Boaters and rafters are frequently seen gliding over the waters of Lake Mead. Unfortunately as of 2000, the Colorado River Basin has been experiencing an extended drought, which has crippled water supply, recreation, hydropower, and ecological services. During this time, the Basin has experienced its lowest 16-year period of inflow in over 100 years of record keeping, and reservoir storage in the Colorado River system has declined from nearly full to about half of its capacity. Bathtub rings on the surface of the rocks which surround Lake Powell and Lake Mead, man-made reservoirs formed by the erection of Glen Canyon Dam and the Hoover Dam respectively, are the tell-tale signs of dropping water levels. These dams may never again return to full capacity, which is a frightening thought when one realizes that expanding populations means that even more water will be needed for domestic use in the future.

The desert state of Nevada already has strict regulations for the use of water, and water is only turned on in communities at specific times. Residents of Nevada aren’t allowed to water their lawns or wash their cars. The owners of golf courses, which can consume as much 1,000,000 gallons of water per week, are also forced to comply with strict water regulations. Almost all wastewater is reused or returned to the Colorado River, and in a bid to further reduce water consumption the water authority is offering to pay homeowners to replace their lawns with rocks and drought-tolerant plants.

Geoscientist Brad Udall, director of the University of Colorado Western Water Assessment, believes that climate change will decrease the river’s flow by 5-20 percent in the next 40 years. He warns that drought will last longer, precipitation in the Rocky Mountains will decrease, and higher air temperature will increase the amount of water lost from the Colorado River Basin through evaporation.

Bathtub rings on the surface of the rock at the river's edge tell the story of declining water levels.

Bathtub rings on the surface of the rock at the river's edge tell the story of declining water levels.

Water Scarcity: A Global Issue We Mustn’t Underestimate

Water shortage is not an issue limited to China and the Colorado River Basin alone. All over the world, in places such as the Mediterranean, southern Africa, and parts of South America, there have been water shortages. Australia, which already is a dry country, is in the middle of the harshest drought it has experienced in 750 years. The drought has decreased the availability of water to such an extent that desalination plants are being built in the city of Perth to process seawater.

The widespread global shortage of water, the repercussions of water mismanagement, and the effects of our changing climate highlights the need for a cultural change in our attitude towards our water supply. Our freshwater supply isn’t unlimited, and unless you want to live in a post-apocalyptic world in which water becomes a luxury I’d suggest you take steps to reduce your water consumption.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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