In this post, originally published in Harvard Asia Quarterly. I draw the connections among food, water and energy systems in China and make the case for the urgent need for more integrated approaches to resource management.
China’s rapidly growing economy is very quickly testing the limits of its resource constraints. While China is home to a quarter of the world’s population, it is endowed with disproportionately less arable land, oil and water.
Such natural resources are vital to any nation’s ability to be self-sufficient, but China’s predicament is especially dire not only because of its large population, but also its rapid urbanization and climate change, both of which will exert more intensive demands on food, energy and water supply. Yet, other than recognizing that water is essential for agriculture, the discussion of each resource constraint is often conducted in isolation, without paying heed to the inter-linkages of food, energy and water systems.
The Example of the Yangtze River
China’s Yangtze River (pictured right) is the third longest in the world and stretches over 6,000 kilometers from the Qinghai Plateau in the west towards the East China Sea at Shanghai. Throughout China’s history, it has played a central role culturally, socially, and economically. It is the unofficial dividing line between China’s north and south, flows through deep gorges in Yunnan Province that have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and serves as the lifeblood upon which much of China’s agricultural and industrial activity has depended on to the present day. All told, the Yangtze River system produces 40 percent of the nation’s grain, a third of its cotton, 48 percent of its freshwater fish and 40 percent of its total industrial output value.
The Yangtze has now become a victim of its own success. With China’s rapid economic industrialization over the past three decades, the Yangtze has evolved from a source of life and prosperity to a symptom of the limits of China’s unabated economic pursuits. It has become a depository for 60 percent of the country’s pollution, making it the single largest source of pollution in the Pacific Ocean. The Yangtze is also home to two massive and highly controversial hydraulic projects—the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydro-electric power facility, and the South-North Water Diversification (SNWD) project (see map illustration below), an unprecedented, multi-decade effort to channel water from the water-rich south to the arid north—each a symptom of a larger ill. The former project points to China’s struggles to maintain energy security and desire to use cleaner sources of energy in a carbon-constrained world, while the latter points to its sheer desperation to address a gross imbalance in the distribution and use of water resources across the Chinese sub-continent.
Neither project comes on the cheap; the Three Gorges Dam bore a price tag of US$30 billion and the SNWD project is projected to cost twice that. Both projects have caused, or will continue to cause, the dislocation of hundreds of thousands of citizens and the significant alteration of landscapes, including the destruction of arable land. Needless to say, both projects have required, or will require, massive inputs of concrete, steel and energy. Together, Three Gorges and SNWD point to a fragile interrelationship between energy, water and food. Beyond the Yangtze, the “food–water–energy trilemma” represents a looming and complex threat to China’s economic stability and national security.
Climate change now stands front and center of energy and environmental agendas around the world. In virtually every case, Read the full story
As unlikely as it sounds, if there is one thing that holds the key to China’s sustainable future, that one thing is soils. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to emphasize that soils lies at the heart of the food-water-energy trilemma, which this blog has been harping on as of late (see previous post).
Soil is really where all life begins. Most obviously, our food sources depend on it. Soils are also a vital links global nutrient and water cycles. Less well known is the immense potential of soils to act as vast carbon sinks, with the ability to “naturally turn over about 10 times more greenhouse gas on a global scale than the burning of fossil fuels.”
Understanding the significance of this last fact relies on the appreciation that displacing all fossil fuel power plants with solar and wind farms, while necessary in curbing the flow of Read the full story