Despite Grim Water Futures, China and US Discuss Everything but Water

by |January 20, 2011

Chinese President Hu Jintao, pictured above with American Vice President Joseph Biden, was welcomed to Washington, D.C. this week with a formal arrival ceremony. (Source: Jason Reed, Reuters)

Chinese President Hu Jintao is in Washington, D.C. for a three-day state visit this week.  The trip began Tuesday evening with a dinner between President Hu and President Obama; the official arrival ceremony and a formal state dinner were held on Wednesday. Over the course of the week, the heads of state plan to focus almost exclusively on areas that divide China and the US. Some of the topics on the agenda are human rights, foreign currency rates, trade imbalance, and China’s military stance.

Notably absent from the week’s program is any planned dialogue regarding energy demand and water supply, two issues whose inverse trajectories are threatening the environmental and economic futures of both nations. In China and the US, increasing energy demand in the face of diminishing water supplies is raising serious questions about the sustainability of the nations’ levels of consumption and production. While the water-energy nexus is increasingly acknowledged by economists and environmentalists alike to be a crucial consideration for the future, it apparently does not rank as highly on Hu’s or Obama’s lists. (For more on the water-energy nexus, see recent posts by Daniel Stellar and Lakis Polycarpou.)

This week’s visit represents a missed opportunity for collaboration between two countries that contribute both to global environmental problems and to international failure to successfully address them. At Copenhagen in 2009, the US and China were two of the nations many blame for the summit’s disappointing results. Now, however, in a more private and less formal setting, the two leaders could offer each other guidance in the areas in which their respective countries have had success.

China, for example, is the world’s third driest country and as such, has experience with water conservation practices and policies, which have allowed fast-paced development to continue despite a limited water supply. The US, on the other hand, has made more progress in looking for opportunities to use alternative energies and develop energy-saving technologies than it has in water conservation efforts.

The tension between energy and water is also playing out differently in the two countries. In the dry but energy-rich northern and western Chinese provinces, it is unlikely that there will be enough water for authorities to realize their plans of constructing modern manufacturing cities and developing the regions’ reserves of coal and natural gas.

The All- American Canal is the main conduit from the Colorado River into the Imperial Dam. The U.S. consumes about 100 billion gallons of water a day, 85% of which is used for agriculture. Half of the remaining 16 billion gallons is devoted to producing energy. (Source: Brent Stinton, Getty Images for Circle of Blue)

In the US, however, water scarcity has already become a definite point of contention between energy developers and Midwestern ranchers and farmers. As water is increasingly consumed by these two sectors (energy and agriculture), the amount available for municipal and domestic use is dwindling, causing water shortages in some major cities.

In response to these troubling realities, Circle of Blue sent reporters and scientists to 18 American states and 15 Chinese provinces to conduct two sister projects, Choke Point: US and Choke Point: China. Their goal was to determine how the two countries are dealing with the constricting “choke points” of energy demand and water scarcity.

The major finding of Choke Point: US was that the energy industry’s replacement of conventional sources of fossil fuels (namely, underground reservoirs) with unconventional sources (such as deep shales and tar sands) is placing even more strain on the nation’s water supply. These new reserves of oil and natural gas require more water to extract and generate more carbon emissions than does conventional fossil fuel production.

In addition, Choke Point: US found that even alternative clean energies, with the exception of wind turbines and solar photovoltaic panels, are placing more stress on national water reserves. Nuclear requires large quantitites of water for cooling tanks, as does traditional solar thermal power. Biofuels are even worse: ethanol requires up to 650x more water per gallon of fuel created than does oil. Obviously when considered in conjunction with the issue of water availability (which it must be in order to be considered in any meaningful way), the issue of energy sourcing becomes even more complicated than it initially seems.

Although the Choke Point: China report isn’t due out until mid-February, a study released by McKinsey in 2009 highlighted a lot of worrisome facts that the Choke Point report will probably cover. By 2030, the demand for water in China is estimated to reach 215 trillion gallons, 52 trillion more gallons than is currently available. With that in mind, what are the implications of China’s energy sourcing decisions? What is the future feasibility of a coal-powered nation when coal-burning power plants require so much water (and contribute heavily to global air pollution)?

Clearly, China and the US both face economic and environmental questions that boil down to something along the lines of “will there be enough water in the future to continue doing what we’re doing now?” The answer to this question has huge implications, not just for China and the US but also, for the global community. Despite this, however, the leaders of these two powerful nations didn’t deem the water-energy nexus to be a topic worthy of explicit discussion during this week’s state visit.

A coal-fired power plant in Shuozhou, China. Power plants like these, which are a major source of energy in China, not only contribute to air pollution but also require large quantities of water for cooling. (Source: Wikimedia)

This decision not to discuss an urgent problem facing both nations is endlessly puzzling to me. At the ripe old age of 9, I learned that water covers about 70% of the earth; a few years later, when I was around 11-years-old, I learned that human bodies are over 50% water. It’s safe to say that before Middle School, my 12-year-old self realized that water was, like, pretty important… for everyone, everywhere. So my question is, where were today’s world leaders when their elementary school teachers were explaining these fundamental facts? Did they get pulled out of class to go to a secret “leaders of tomorrow” conference in the playground? Is this what happens when child geniuses skip a few grades? My point is, they must not have learned how vital water is for the planet (and consequently, for industry and the global economy), otherwise surely it would be right up there with currency and trade imbalance on their list of problems to be discussed this week. We can only hope that sometime soon, the issue of water scarcity and its connection to energy demand makes it past the discussion list and onto the “problems we should actually do something about” list…if such a list exists, that is.

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Jeff Haight
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Why aren’t leaders talking about water and other important issues? Why isn’t there a “problems we should actually do something about” list? When are we going to put our emotions and egos aside and focus on the important work we could all be working on together, as a species? As brothers and sisters of the same family. Personally, I am very much looking forward to that day. Imagine the things we could accomplish working together. I feel that there are so many people out of work, and so many more who have work, but don’t find their work meaningful. This… Read more »

Jay Banks
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I agree with you Jeff. Before the visit I was afraid the debate would turn around dealing with each other’s monetary policy and other issues would be overshadowed by it. So I welcome the fact that the presidents have managed to discuss a number of other important issues the protection of the environment being one of them.