Episode 94      19 min 
Managing China's Water Challenges

Water engineer Prof John Langford discusses the immense challenges facing a China with swiftly mounting water demand and dwindling resources. With science host Dr Shane Huntington.

"The ground water in the North China Plain is actually very old. It is being drawn down about a metre to two metres a year, which is really not sustainable, when you think of half a billion people depending on it for food and water. " -- Prof John Langford





           



John Langford AM
John Langford AM

John Langford is Professor at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. John is the founding Director of the Melbourne Water Research Centre, and Co-Director of the Australia-China Centre on Water Resources Research. He has had a 35-year career in the Australian water industry, serving as Chief Executive of the Rural Water Commission from 1989 to 1994.  From 1994 to 2003 he was the inaugural Executive Director of the Water Services Association of Australia.  John is a Fellow, Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and a Fellow, Institution of Engineers, Australia.  He was recipient of a Churchill Fellowship in 1973, the Peter Hughes award for contribution to Australian water management in 2000, a Centenary Medal, and was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2005.

Credits

Host: Dr Shane Huntington
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param
Audio Engineer: Russell Evans
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink

View Tags  click a tag to find other episodes associated with it.

 Download mp3 (18.3 MB)

Managing China's Water Challenges

VOICEOVER
Welcome to Up Close, the research, opinion and analysis podcast from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Hello and welcome to Up Close. I’m Dr Shane Huntington. China is home to two extraordinary geological structures. The Tibetan Plateau in the country’s west and the North China Plain in the east. These regions of are of complete contrast in topology but collectively they provide water resources to over 40 per cent of the world’s population, and require sophisticated management under increasingly challenging social and environmental circumstances. Today on Up Close we are joined by Professor John Langford, Director of Uniwater, a joint initiative of the University of Melbourne and Monash University, both in Australia, and a Co-Director of the Australia China Centre on Water Resources Research. Welcome to Up Close.

JOHN LANGFORD
Hello there.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Let’s begin by discussing the western side of China, where we find this extraordinary geological feature the Tibetan Plateau. John, can you give us a bit of an overview of the plateau itself?

JOHN LANGFORD
Well the Tibetan Plateau is a fundamental source of water for about 40 per cent of the world’s population. It is around 2.5 million square kilometres. That is about a third of Australia, so it is a very large area. It is also high. The average height is between 4,000 and 5,000 metres. There are a lot of glaciers, a lot of snow and ice and it is the principal sources of rivers like the Yellow or the Yangtze or the Mekong or the Irrawaddy and I could on, the Indus. Throughout the Indian sub continent and South East Asia a fundamental source of water. It is crucial. There are signs that global warming is melting the glaciers with fundamental effects on water resources and water security.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
You mentioned that this particular region, the plateau itself and much of the surrounding areas are fed in terms of water into rivers. What is the source of all this water?

JOHN LANGFORD
Well it is precipitation over the Tibetan Plateau largely in the form of snow. That is accumulated into glaciers that then melt and provide the source of water for all these major river systems.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Let’s focus just for a moment on glaciers, because I know most people are quite familiar with the term but could you give us a bit of a description on how these work and why they are so important to that particular region and the resource that it offers.

JOHN LANGFORD
Well as snow consolidates it forms ice and the ice moves down the river valleys, in effect rivers of ice. They reach a lower elevation where they start to melt and they are sources of major rivers. To give an example, the source of the Yangtze is something like 1200 square kilometres of ice. That has contracted from about 1200 to 1300 square kilometres to about 1,000 since 1970. There has been a substantial contraction in the amount of ice in the glaciers providing water for the Yangtze.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
You mentioned that the ice essentially flows like a river. What kind of speeds are we talking about here?

JOHN LANGFORD
Well you are talking about metres per day not metres per second as you would in a river of water, so it is slow.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Let’s for a moment now head across to the eastern side of China basically just south of Beijing where we would find the North China Plain. How is this different to what we see in the Tibetan Plateau?

JOHN LANGFORD
Well it’s very much lower elevation. It’s dry and hot particularly in Summer. But more importantly it has got 500 million people living on it and depending on the groundwater of that region for food and water.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
In contrast to the Tibetan Plateau, John, I can imagine the water source in the North China Plain is not fed immediately by glaciers. Where is all the water coming from? Is it from rivers across from the Tibetan Plateau or are there other water sources in that region?

JOHN LANGFORD
The Yellow River is sourced in the Tibetan Plateau, but the ground water in the North China Plain is actually very old. I would call it fossil ground water. We have estimated the age of that ground water is between 10,000 and 30,000 years. That ground water is not being recharged locally by rainfall in the present era. It is being drawn down about a metre to two metres a year, which is really not sustainable, when you think of half a billion people depending on it for food and water.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
The average altitude of the region is relatively low, does that imply that there is a corresponding salinity threat in the region as well?

JOHN LANGFORD
Well as you draw the groundwater down there is a risk of sea water intrusion. There is something like 150,000 square kilometres of groundwater regions in North China and about half of it is being subject to salinity. It is not only the water it’s the sale in the water that’s crucial. Because by adding salt to water you can turn it from a water resource into something that’s useless very quickly.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
The sustainability of the system overall is a major concern for the future. What are the big challenges that are being faced by the region at the moment?

JOHN LANGFORD
Well groundwater management is absolutely crucial in Northern China the dry part of China. China has employed some very sophisticated groundwater management techniques. I have seen pilot studies where they have measured all the bores. Metered all the groundwater wells that are pumped. They have equipped the farmers with swipe cards which include their electricity account to pay for the pumping and their water allocation to make sure that they have sufficient water allocation. All these wells and their measurements are telemetered in a wireless network to groundwater models and measurement in a central location. So the managers of those aquifers can see in real time what is happening and help ensure more sustainable use of the resource through better measurement and better control. That is well ahead of anything in Australia I can assure you.

SHANE HUNTINGTO
In terms of climatic shift that we’re hearing a lot about at the moment. Is there already evidence – you mentioned before there is retraction of the glaciers. Is this closely linked already to the sorts of global changes in climate that we’re experiencing due to human activities or is part of a normal cyclic response in terms of the region?

JOHN LANGFORD
Well the North China Plain and southern Australia are dry parts of the world. In general the models of global warming suggest the drier parts are going to get drier, which is happening in southern Australia and appears to be happening in the North China Plain. These natural systems, rainfall in particular, are incredibly variable. It is very hard to prove whether this is a permanent shift or whether it’s part of a normal variation. As the era, year by year of persistent low rainfall continues you start reaching the conclusion that even if this is not a climatic shift we need serious insurance against it being a climatic shift. In other words it gets to the point where we can’t take the risk of just ignoring it and hoping it’ll rain as it’s done in the past. We need to take insurance. In agriculture that is raising the economic productivity of water, in other words getting more food from less water.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
John, just thinking about glaciers for a few months. With the sort of temperature changes that we often hear about of a couple of degrees, what would be the sort of effect that we would see on a glacier with that temperature change. I mean casually thinking about it a couple of degrees won’t necessarily be enough to cause complete melting of the ice. But it will change, I assume the way the glacier reacts to its environment quite strongly?

JOHN LANGFORD
I think we have the physical evidence that they are retreating and have been so for many decades so there is that evidence. In terms of water supply though, we are using those glaciers as is they were a dam. Now if I took say California as another example where the cities of Los Angeles, for example, have relied on the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, in the mountain ranges. Now that is contracting and melting so they are getting higher Spring flows, which they cannot harvest in their dams they are too small. Because they’ve been relying on the storage of water in the snowpack. That means the reliability of their water yield is going down and that is causing difficulty. So the melting of the glaciers and the changes in the flow patterns are really affecting water security.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
You're listening to Up Close coming to you from the University of Melbourne, Australia. In this episode we’re speaking with John Langford about water management in China. John, let’s move now a little bit more towards the effect of the people on the resource. How much is the dietary shifts in China that have been occurring over the last decade or so affecting the use of the water resource that we have and I guess the corresponding economic growth that we see in the country?

JOHN LANGFORD
It is not only dietary changes, the scale of economic growth in China and the movement out of a relatively basic lifestyle in rural China into a relatively affluent lifestyle in cities, remember China is in effect building about a New York City every year. The scale of this is very hard for people that have never been there to even imagine. So the increased consumption or demand for water, for energy, for food and generally a wealthier or more affluent lifestyle involves more meat and more dairy products instead of consuming vegetable protein directly, which is a lot less efficient in terms of producing food. Remember producing food takes about ten times the volume of water than you require for drinking and sanitation and bathing and industry. Food is a dominant use of water. If people’s dietary, you know, food patterns change then that has really serious implications for water resources.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
How is China currently going about managing this situation? Is there a sort of  hierarchical approach to the way in which water is distributed?

JOHN LANGFORD
They are basically following the path that Australia followed in its pioneering phase. That is investing a lot in civil engineering. In building dams, canals, channels to divert water, to store it and provide it for irrigation. Australia reached a point where they were using just about all the water. It reached a limit and has had to move to policy reforms, to move away from command and control management of water resources into a more market based approach in the allocation of water.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
John, what are the political implications of having such a heavily managed landscape at your disposal?

JOHN LANGFORD
Well I’m told that China’s character for rivers when combined with the Chinese character for levee banks, that would be the levees around rice paddies, you end up with the Chinese word for politics. Or more strictly, governance. So water and politics go all the way back into the mists of time in China. The same goes for English. The derivation of the English word rival, actually means people who share the same stream. So water and competition over water goes way back into the mists of time. It is very hard to manage water without being in conflict and dispute between upstream and downstream. But as I said before the pressures on China of a large population becoming more affluent are the stresses that that is placing on food production and water supply are such that you’ve got relatively little choice but to turn the landscape into a managed landscape. I can give you an example. There’s a Lake Baiyangdian about 150 kilometres south of Beijing. The pearl of China. During the Japanese invasion the Chinese Army hid in the rushes in that lake and came out and ambushed the Japanese soldiers. It’s got both historical and cultural value. Now that lake started drying up repeatedly because of the amount of water being diverted out of it. The senior people in the Chinese Government said this has got to stop. So they’ve set a minimum target in the lake which is met. To meet that target, instead of letting water flow down the rivers, a lot of it being lost by recharging groundwater, they divert the water into the lake through the constructed irrigation system which covers pretty well the whole landscape. Because it’s much more efficient to transfer water than using the natural rivers. The riverbeds are dry and there’s maize growing in all the river beds. So you’re looking at a landscaped garden in effect, or a landscaped farm with water being distributed through canals rather than natural rivers. unless, of course, you have a major flood event and then nature takes its course.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
John, can you speak a little to the type of collaborative work going on between Australia and China in terms of improving water management strategies in China?

JOHN LANGFORD
Well we in Australia might thing our water management is under great stress and not all that effective. In fact internationally we are regarded, with some justice, as being very skilled at water management. Also very good at trying to integrate the various aspects of water management policy, civil engineering, landscape management, agriculture and ecological management. So we’re getting better at linking the disciplines and the various aspects of catchment management together. The Chinese are very good at pursuing individual elements in a very deep way, but they’re not as developed in connecting and integrating the various aspects of water management. For example the civil engineering of construction and the water allocation policies that can help get better value out of that. So we can actually learn from each other. The practices and experience of Australia in water allocation reform, water markets, improving agricultural water productivity, aspects of groundwater management, we can help them. Then on the other hand that example of groundwater management that I mentioned in China can really help us. So it’s a case of knowledge exchange.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Tell us a little bit about this MIEX technology.

JOHN LANGFORD
Well MIEX was developed in South Australia to remove dissolved organic material from water. Because dissolved organic material is the principal source of taste and odour problems in water and also if you disinfect water with chlorine and it has a lot of organic material in it, you end up with disinfection by-products some of which are injurious to public health. So they developed a technique using ion-exchange resins and magnetic fields to remove dissolved organic material. That’s reached the stage where it’s been commercialised and run by a company called ORICA. We’re looking at the groundwater under Beijing, which is on the North China Plain.  There is an enormous issue of sewerage treatment with such a large population and some very large sewerage treatment works have been built. What we are looking to do is to take the effluent from these sewerage treatment works. To treat it using the MIEX technology to remove the dissolved organic material, in other words that’s food for bacteria and algae and then recharge the aquifers with this treated water. We are looking to work with Qinghua University, with the company ORICA and Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research organisation that has got a lot of expertise in what we call aquifer storage and recovery.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Professor John Langford of Uniwater and the Australia China Centre on Water Resources Research, thank you very much for being our guest on Up Close today. I wish you every success with your exciting research.

JOHN LANGFORD
Thank you, Shane.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Relevant links, a full transcript and more information on this episode can be found on our website at http://upclose.unimelb.edu.au. We also invite you to leave your comments or feedback on this or any episode of Up Close. Simply click on the “Add New Comment” link the bottom of the episode page. Up Close is brought to you by Marketing and Communications of the University of Melbourne, Australia. Our producers for this episode were Kelvin Param and Eric Van Bemmel, with audio engineering by Russell Evans. Melbourne University Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param. I'm Dr Shane Huntington. Until next time, goodbye.

VOICEOVER
You’ve been listening to Up Close.  For more information visit upclose.u-n-i-m-e-l-b.edu.au.  Copyright 2010, The University of Melbourne.


show transcript | print transcript | download pdf