Albion Monitor /News

China's Cities Suffer Acute Water Shortages

by Antoaneta Bezlova

on related problem of Chinese urban air pollution
(IPS) BEIJING -- China's exploding population, rapid economic growth and fast urbanization are not the only reasons why the country's water woes are getting worse. Dragons are to blame, too, say water management experts.

Not the scaly, fire-breathing creatures of Chinese folklore, of course. In bureaucratic jargon, the "dragons" are the many government agencies squabbling for control of China's water resources.

While they jostle with one another, no one is taking charge of updating the country's antiquated water pricing policy, say the experts. In the meantime, an enormous volume of precious water is being wasted every day, with no incentive in sight for conservation efforts.

This despite the fact that government figures put China's per capita water supply as only one-fourth the world average.

More than 80 percent of wastewater is being drained untreated and urban pollution has soared to dangerous levels
But China's "water dragons" may soon be brought to heel, at least in the cities. Recently, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Ministry of Construction launched the "21st Century China Urban Water Management Project," with Shijiazhuang, the capital of inland Hebei province, as the initial site.

According to the UNDP's Hou Xinan, Shijiazhuang was chosen as the "trial site" in reforming China's outdated water management and tariff system because "it is one of the thirstiest cities in China and is typical for all the woes plaguing the sector".

The city has seven water supply plants, which rely almost 100 percent on underground water resources that can hardly accommodate the residents' growing water needs. Yet prices are ultra-low, with residents paying less than one U.S. cent per cubic meter of water.

The water dragons of Shijiazhuang include the Municipal Construction Commission, which supervises the construction and operation of the water supply plants, the Bureau of Water Resources, which takes care of irrigation and flood control and the Bureau of Mineral Resources, which monitors the use of underground water.

Then there are the Public Utilities Bureau, the Environmental Protection Bureau, the Public Health Bureau and the Local Planning Bureau.

The city's complicated system of water management is mirrored on the national level. Unfortunately, Hou says, "these agencies lack coordination and can't exercise an integrated management of the supplies."

This is largely why half of China's 666 cities experience acute water shortages. Daily water deficiency has already reached 16 million cubic meters. At the same time, more than 80 percent of wastewater is being drained untreated and urban pollution has soared to dangerous levels.

Based on the Shijiazhuang experiment, the new UNDP project is aiming to draft a plan for institutional reform of the water management agencies. Its ultimate goal is to create a national model of water administration.

The UNDP and the Australian government are pouring in $1.1 million for the project, while the Chinese government will provide about $48,000. Launched in October, the project is scheduled to be completed by the end of 1999.

Aside from taming the water dragons, the project also aims to propose a new system of water tariffs to replace the present one, which experts say does not reflect the true cost of supplies. Says Nie Mieshing of the Ministry of Construction: "Many water supply and treatment plants operate in loss because they can't recover their costs."

The government subsidizes the water plants, but "there are limits to these subsidies," says UNDP's Hou. Nie, meanwhile, points to the people's carelessness when it comes to water. She says: "People lack awareness about the gravity of the situation."

Indeed, many Chinese grumble about rising prices of heating and electricity, yet remain unworried when it comes to water. Wang Suwen, a middle-aged hairdresser who works in a small beauty parlour here, seems surprised when asked if she tries to save water at work and at home. She replies: "I haven't thought of it. Water is still relatively cheap."

Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shanghai and other big cities have taken the lead and have raised water prices, taking into consideration local conditions. But Shijiazhuang is one of the many cities in China's hinterlands that have been slow in taking similar steps.

"Many places are waiting for the state to come up with a unified policy for water pricing," says Nie. By early this year, though, she says, the State Planning Commission, the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Construction may be ready with such a policy.

The new policy is expected to unify the tariffs. Water prices, however, will be decided locally. This will give local governments a chance to look for foreign capital as a quick fix for their water problems.

However, privatization is still out of consideration. Though not given the value it deserves, water in China is viewed nevertheless as an important commodity that should remain under the control of the state.

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Albion Monitor January 5, 1998 (

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