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Water resources

Surface water resources

The average annual river runoff generated within the country is 2 711.5 km3. Precipitation makes up 98 percent of total river runoff, the remaining 2 percent coming from melting glaciers.

China can be divided into nine main river basin groups (Table 2). In the north there are the Song-Liao or Heilong (Amur)-Songhua, the Huai, the Huang (Yellow), the Hai-Luan and the interior or endoreic river basin groups. The total average annual internal renewable surface water resources (ISRWR) in these five river basin groups are an estimated 535.5 km3, which is almost 20 percent of the country’s IRSWR. In the south there are the Chang (Yangtze), the Zhu (Pearl), the southwest and the southeast river basin groups. The total average annual ISRWR in these four river basin groups are an estimated 2 176.2 km3, which is just over 80 percent of the country’s IRSWR.

In total, there are more than 50 000 rivers with a basin area of over 100 km2, 1 500 rivers have a basin exceeding 1 000 km2. Rivers can be classified into two categories: rivers discharging into seas (outflowing rivers), and inland rivers running into depressions in the interior (endoreic basins). The total drainage area of rivers flowing to the sea cover about 65 percent of the territory, most drains into the Pacific Ocean and small areas to the Indian Ocean and the Arctic Ocean. Endoreic river basins cover the remaining 35 percent of the country’s total area.

The volume of water flowing to nine neighbouring countries (Bhutan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, and Viet Nam) is an estimated almost 718 km3/year (Table 3). To the north, the Heilong river enters the Russian Federation before it empties into the Sea of Okhotsk, the Ertix river joins the Ob River in Kazakhstan, the Ili river discharges into Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan, and the Suifen river flows through the Russian Federation to the sea at Vladivostok. To the south, the Yuan, Lixian, Panlong rivers are the upper reaches of the Red river in Viet Nam, the Lancang river becomes the Mekong river after it enters Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the Nu river becomes the Salween river after it enters Myanmar, the Yalung Zangbo river is called the Brahmaputra river after it enters India, and the Langqen Zangbo and Sengge Zangbo rivers of west Tibet and the Qipuqiapu river of Xinjiang are the upper reaches of the Indus river flowing through India and Pakistan into the Indian Ocean.

There are 12 main rivers that enter China from six neighbouring countries (India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Viet Nam). The mean annual volume of water entering the country is just over 17 km3, of which 4.2 percent in the Heilong river basin from Mongolia, 52.9 percent in inland rivers, 42.2 percent in the Zhu river basin from Viet Nam, and 0.7 percent in rivers in the southwest (Table 4).

There are also a number of border rivers (Table 5). The main course of the Heilong river and its upstream tributaries (the Ergun and Wusuli rivers) flow along the border between China and the Russian Federation. After receiving the flow of the Songhua river (10.9 km3/year), the Heilong river flows into the Russian Federation. The total flow of the Heilong and Songhua rivers (117 km3/year) is considered as flowing out of China, while the resources before flowing out have already been included in the IRSWR. The Tumen and Yalu rivers flow along the border between China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. However, the corresponding flow is not considered as outflowing as these rivers do not leave Chinese territory. Half of the total flow of 20.3 km3/year of these rivers, 10.15 km3/year, is counted for each country.


The total area of glaciers in China is about 58 651 km2 extending over six northwestern and southwestern provinces or autonomous regions (Gansu, Qingha, Xinjiang, Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan). In total the country’s glacier storage is around 5 100 km3 in total. The amount of mean annual glacier melt water is about 56 km3.

Groundwater resources

The average annual groundwater resources for the whole country are an estimated 828.8 km3. That part which reaches the rivers as baseflow, or comes from river seepage, called ‘overlap’, is an estimated 727.9 km3.

About 70 percent of the groundwater resources are in southern China and 30 percent in northern China. The aquifers vary greatly across northern China and are geologically complicated. Unlike the south, where villages in mountainous areas can tap groundwater resources, mountainous areas in northern China are often groundwater deficient. In the flat plains, especially in the areas near the coast and especially in the Hai river basin many of the aquifers are multilayered. These multilayered aquifers typically have two to five layers. The first and third layers are the most water resource rich. The first layer is an unconfined aquifer made up of large grained homogeneous sand and gravel. The other layers are confined aquifers. In some areas, especially in the eastern parts of the Hai river Basin, there is a naturally occurring saline layer. Created during a previous Ice Age, saline water is often found in the second layer, is confined and has a high enough salt content that it must be treated before being used for agriculture (Wang et al., 2005).

Total renewable water resources

The total internal renewable water resources (IRWR) of China are around 2 812.40 km3/year and are summarised in Table 6. The total renewable water resources (TRWR), considering external flows, are equal to 2 839.72 km3/year, giving a dependency ratio of about 1 percent (Table 7).

Lakes and dams

There are about 2 300 natural lakes (excluding seasonal ones) with a total storage of 708.8 km3, of which the freshwater portion is 31.9 percent (226.1 km3). There are five major lake districts (Table 8).

At the end of 2005, the total number of artificial lakes or reservoirs was 85 108 with a total capacity of 562 km3. Of these, 470 were classified as large reservoirs (> 100 million m3) with a total capacity of 419.7 km3, 2 934 were medium reservoirs (10 – 100 million m3) with a total capacity of 82.6 km3, and 81 704 were small reservoirs (0.1 – 10 million m3) with a total capacity of 60.2 km3.

The Three Gorges Dam on the Chang (Yangtze) river, situated at Sandouping of Yichang City, Hubei Province, was completed in 2006 and is considered to be the largest hydropower project in the world. Besides hydropower, its main purpose is flood control and navigation improvement. The dam is nearly 200 m high and the water level in the reservoir is to be kept at 175 m above sea level during the dry winter months, and lowered to 145 m for the summer flood season. The dam is about 600 m long and the total storage capacity of the reservoir is 39.3 km3.

Until the Three Gorges Dam project (TGP) got under way, the most ambitious project completed was the Gezhouba hydroelectric dam, which was the first structure to block the flow of the Chang river. The dam is located in the suburbs of Yichang, 38 km downstream the TGP. The construction of the dam started in 1970 and ended in 1988. The dam is 54 m high with a total storage capacity of 1.58 km3.

The Geheyan Dam, designed in 1987 and completed in 1994, is the first large dam on the Qing river, a tributary of the Chang river, in Yichang, Hubei. There were many problems with the non-functioning of the ship lift until 1998. This dam has recently fallen foul of many planning permit disputes, and is set to be demolished in June 2011.

The Liujiaxia dam, with a total capacity of 5.7 km3, is a hydroelectric dam on the upper Huang (Yellow) river, in Liujiaxia Town, Gansu Province. The dam is located just downstream from the fall of the Tao river into the Huang river and has the largest water body within Gansu. The primary purpose of the dam is to generate electricity and for flood control, irrigation, and ‘ice flood prevention’. When it became fully operational in 1974, it became the country’s largest hydroelectric power plant, and remained so until the 1980s.

There are four hydropower projects on the Lancang river, which are the Manwan dam (1 500 MW and 0.66 km3 of capacity), the Dachaoshan dam (1 350 MW), the Jinghong dam (1 750 MW) and the Xiaowan dam (4 200 MW and 15 km3). Four more dams are under construction or are being planned on the Lancang river with a total capacity of 7 000 MW.

Other important dams are the Ertan dam (5.8 km3 of capacity) on the Yalong river (Yangtze Basin), the Shuibuya dam (4.6 km3) on the Qing river (Yangtze basin), the Longtan dam (27.3 km3) on the Hongshui river, the Longyangxia dam (24.7) on the Yellow river, the Laxiwa dam (1.08 km3) on the Yellow river and the Xiaolangdi dam (12.8 km3) on the Yellow river.

In 2010, other important dams were being constructed, such as the Jinping 1 dam.

In 2006, the total installed capacity of hydropower was 52.93 GW and the annual generation of hydropower was 163.6 billion kWh (MWR, 2007b).

Non-conventional sources of water

Total wastewater produced accounts for 53.7 km3 in 2006, of which only 56 percent (30.07 km3) had some form of treatment. However, this rate reflects the installed wastewater treatment capacity rather than the actual treatment, which is likely to be lower owing to the lack of sewage networks and funds for operation and maintenance in many cities (World Bank, 2009a). In 2004, actual treated wastewater was about 22.10 km3 (World Bank, 2006).

The research of engineering technology of seawater desalination in China began in 1958. There have been more than 20 seawater desalination projects to date, among which are Shandong Huangdao power plant, Hebei Huanghua power plant, the No. 7 Petroleum Factory of China Petroleum Dalian Petrochemical Corporation, Tianjin economic-technological development area, Shandong Yantai city and Hebei Wangtan power plant are relatively large-scale seawater desalination enterprises that are in, or will be put into, production (Ji et al., 2006). In 2008, the accumulative production capacity of these projects was around 30 000 m3/day, which would be around 10.95 million m3/year (World Bank, 2009a).

Water scarcity

Although China has the fifth largest amount of internal renewable water resources in the world, after Brazil, the Russian Federation, Canada and Indonesia, it is faced with a regional water crises. Total actual renewable water resources per capita account for 2 079 m3/year in 2009, while the world average is an estimated 6 225 m3/year, and is expected to decline to 1 890 m3/year as its population rises to a projected peak of 1.5 billion by around 2033. Moreover, there is much variation within the country, from less than 500 m3/year per inhabitant in the Huai and Hai-Luan river basins in the north, to over 25 000 m3/year per inhabitant in river basins in the southwest.

The precipitation pattern further intensifies the uneven distribution of water resources. With a strong monsoonal climate, China is subject to highly variable rainfall that contributes to frequent droughts and floods, which also occur simultaneously in different regions (Yunlong, 2009).

The water shortages are largely concentrated in the dry north, which has only one-fifth of China’s water. This area, which includes the Huang, Liao, Hai and Huai rivers, boasts two-thirds of China’s cropland (Table 2). Irrigation demands are high, rapid economic growth and urbanization are fuelling additional water consumption, and water use and demand management is inefficient. In contrast, the south is well supplied with water. It encompasses the vast Chang river and has four times the groundwater resources of the north. But it has its own problems, exemplified by summer devastating flooding by the Chang river. While the south faces flooding every year, the north, where most agricultural activities exist with very dense population, faces severe water shortages. Nearly half of the 640 cities in China face water shortages, and 100 of them face serious water scarcity (Burke, 2000).

Signs of water stress are not hard to find. Perhaps the starkest example is the Huang river. In 1972, for the first time in China’s history, it dried up before reaching the sea. Since 1985, it has run dry part of each year. During the droughts of 1997 it didn’t reach the sea for 228 days, depriving the last province before the sea, Shandong, which produces one-fifth of China’s maize and one-seventh of its wheat, of half its irrigation supply. However, since the beginning of the 2000s, after a river basin approach was adopted in the Huang river basin, the river has not dried up. Groundwater also faces severe pressure, over-extraction is a serious problem in a number of cities, including Nanjing, Taiyuan, Shijiaxhuang, and Xi’an. Levels in Shanghai and Beijing are falling by 1 m/year. In coastal cities, such as Delian and Qingdao, saltwater intrusion compounds the problem (Burke, 2000).

Internal water transfer projects

The uneven distribution of China’s water resources between the water scarce north and water abundant south is forcing the Chinese Government to seek measures to ensure sufficient water availability for people living in northern regions. One such measure is the ‘South to North Water Transfer Project’. At the time of completion (2050), this three route project will channel 44.8 km3 of water per year from the Chang river to drought-stricken northern China. The project is designed to divert 13.4 km3/year from the Chang river system to Beijing and will supply many other cities along the route. Work began in 2000 and the first supplies reached Shandong and Beijing in 2007 and 2010 respectively. Total project expenses, which were initially projected at US$60 000 million, have been increasing.

The project faces a number of logistical challenges, including the need to clean up water bodies at intersections through which the canals will pass. The 1 154 km eastern route of the project largely follows the Grand Canal route from the Chang river through Jiangsu and Shandong provinces to Hebei and Tianjin, will divert 14.8 km3 annually, it crosses through 53 river sections in China’s most heavily water-polluted area. Cleanup operations will account for 37 percent of the total investment. If completed on schedule, it will represent one of the most comprehensive water cleanup operations in the world.

Challenges include implementation and effectiveness of wastewater treatment plants, ensuring inter-provincial dialogue, and agreement on project components. The vast cost of the projects may mean that water pricing will be a problem for some consumers (between 3.2 and 4.8 Yuan/m3 in many cities and as high as 7 Yuan/m3 in Beijing). The central route of the project will divert 13 km3/year, will submerge 370 km2 of land and will require the relocation of 330 000 people in Henan and Hubei provinces. The western route will divert 17 km3/year from the upper reaches of the Chang river to the Huang river (Chao, 2009).

The Shanxi Wanjiazhai Huang (Yellow) river diversion project is an all-encompassing project to alleviate the water shortages in three of China’s industrial areas: Taiyuan, Pingsuo and Datong. The project started in 1997 and in November 2001 the first major step was inaugurated when water from the Huang river ran to the Fenhe reservoir. The cost of the entire enterprise is about US$1 500 million, US$400 million of which came from the World Bank.

The diversion project, which brings water from the Huang river to Qingdao in Shandong province, is the largest water conservancy and city water supply project since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Water diversion began in 1989 to guarantee supplies to Qingdao city, whichhas the most serious water shortages in northernChina. It has received more than 1.1 km3 of water so far. Greater Qingdao covers an area of 10 654 km2 and has a population of 7.5 million, more than one-third of whom live in its urban areas. The shortfalls have been exacerbated over the past decade as its population and economy have grown (China Daily, 2007). A second phase of the project is to divert water from Huang river to Qingdao and will increase the volume of diverted water by 140 million m3/year to 250 million m3/year. (ACCA21, not dated).


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