Caixin
Sep 05, 2012 12:38 PM

China's Water Problem

This summer's weather has been intense. In Beijing, flash floods paralyzed the capital in late July and killed at least 77 people. A storm that flooded Manila turned the Philippines' capital into what one official called "Water World."  Hong Kong raised the Signal Ten typhoon warning for the first time in 13 years.

Welcome to the new normal of more intense weather. Two centuries of heavy fossil fuel use have probably pushed climate change beyond a tipping point. That means brutal storms will become more common. So, too, will droughts and intense heat, such as much of the United States is enduring – weather that is more extreme than that seen in the Dust Bowl days of Depression-era America in the 1930s.

Weather is what it feels like when you go outside today, climatologists like to say. Climate – and climate change – is the long-term pattern of temperature and precipitation. There's little doubt that climate change is here and that it's going to have a more severe impact on our lives in the decades ahead.

Last year was the 34th straight year of above-average temperatures, dating back to when record-keeping began in 1880. What's happening this summer is very much in line with what scientists have predicted: As greenhouse gases build up in the Earth's atmosphere, the warmer atmosphere holds more moisture. Rainfall, when it comes, is more intense. Droughts, too, are more severe and frequent.

The news photos of people flooded out of their homes gets good play on TV and in newspapers. But it is drought, and a general shortage of water, that is one of Asia's most worrying long-term threats. Flooding is deadly, costly and in general inconvenient. But too much water is almost always better than not enough.

This wet, stormy summer shouldn't hide the simple fact that Asia doesn't have enough water to keep up a business-as-usual stance if its economic growth is to continue. Northern China – including cities such as Beijing and Tianjin – is especially at risk, with only as much water per person as the Middle East.

This looming water shortage means Asia needs to start using the water it has more efficiently. Looking around the region, Singapore stands out as a model for sensible water practices. The city-state, with a population of some 5 million people, historically depended on Malaysia for water. Singapore decided that it wanted to take its future into its own hands. Its pioneering NEWater facilities recycle waste water into drinking water, making up an impressive 30 percent of the country's total needs. NEWater stands out as one of the world's most innovative and successful large-scale waste-to-water projects.

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