China’s Rapid Economic Growth and Its Impact on Water Resources


China has experienced unparalleled economic growth in the last five decades, thus improving living standards in the country. Infrastructural development and international trade have also grown exceptionally during this period. However, this economic development has come with increased domestic and industrial water usage leading to severe shortages. The quality of water has also been affected greatly. Currently, 20 percent of the world’s population is in China; however, only 7 percent of the country’s fresh water is available for use despite the ever-rising need for this natural resource. Economic development means that people’s livelihoods will improve, which comes with water-demanding lifestyles, especially among the growing middle class.

The manufacturing sector has grown exponentially in the last five decades, which is one of the factors underlying China’s exceptional economic development. However, this phenomenon has led to an increased demand for water usage for industrial purposes. Additionally, the temporal and spatial distribution of water resources in the country is uneven. The southern part has the majority of water resources, but the northern part has the largest proportion of land size with most farmlands concentrated here (Li and Qian 329). Moreover, rainfall in the country is experienced mainly during the summer months, which means the rest of the year has minimal precipitation. These factors have contributed to the water crisis and shortage in the country. This paper discusses the impact of China’s rapid economic growth on its water resources.

Water Resources and Distribution in China

According to Liu et al., China has an annual average of 2800 billion m3 of total freshwater resources (634). China ranks sixth on the list of countries with the largest freshwater volumes in the world. However, the spatial distribution of the water resources is unevenly distributed between the north and the south. Li and Qian posit that the “water resources in southern China are abundant (accounting for over 80% of the national total), while 60% of the farmland areas are in northern China, with only 19% of the water resources” (329). This uneven distribution implies that the northern side of the country experiences severe water shortages given the many farmland areas and the limited water resources. The ratio of water withdrawal to the available volumes is high in the country, which puts pressure on the ecosystem due to intense water usage. The recommended ratio that could be sustainable according to international standards is 40.

However, most parts of the country exceed this ratio by many folds. For instance, The Hai River Basin, which is in the northern part of the country, has a ratio of 124 (Yang et al. 312). This figure means that the region uses more water than it can produce. The deficit is covered through desalinating seawater and exploitation of non-renewable deep aquifers in the region. Consequently, water resources in the affected areas have been depleted and the groundwater levels have dropped alarmingly over the past few years. Yang et al. argue that it is “estimated that the accumulated overdraft of groundwater during the past two decades in the North China Plain has exceeded 90 billion cu m” (312). The consequences of this scenario are serious as it leads to seawater intrusion, land subsidence, and ecosystem functions are lost. Some rivers, such as the Yellow River, and their tributaries have become seasonal, while others have dried.

Increased Water Demand

Demand for water has grown exponentially in tandem with the rapid economic development and increase in population. From 1980 to 2009, the overall usage of water in China increased by 34 percent (Yang et al. 314). This increased demand came solely from household and industrial sectors. For instance, the demand for industrial water usage increased by threefold, while that of household use grew by eleven fold, from 45.7 billion cu m to 139 billion 139.1 billion cu m and from 6.8 billion cu m to 74.8 billion cu m, respectively (Yang et al. 315). Additionally, the growth of the population requires a similar trend in agricultural production, and during this period, 372.3 billion cu m of water was used for irrigation.

The high demand for water from household, industrial, and agricultural sectors means that the portion reserved for environmental purposes is reduced significantly. However, the appropriate amount of water needed to sustain a healthy ecosystem is not known. This problem is caused by the complexity involved in measuring water requirements by the ecosystem and usage in other areas, such as households and industries. Nevertheless, even with the lack of clear formula to determine the amount of water required for environmental purposes, it is clear that industrial and household usage has left very little for the maintenance of a vibrant ecosystem. The increased demand for water in China has thus led to severe shortages and the depletion of this natural resource (Wang et al. 1862). To address this problem, the government has come up with numerous initiatives to improve the management of water resources around the country. However, these corrective measures have not solved the problem completely because China is classified as one of the water poor countries according to international standards.

Water Pollution

The rapid population growth and industrialization in China over the last five decades have led to massive environmental population, thus straining the available natural resources, such as water. According to Hi and Cheng, “Water pollution occurs when the amounts of pollutants discharged into the water body can no longer be accommodated by the natural ecosystem” (58). The explosion of industries and population growth has had two impacts on water resources in the country. First, industrial and domestic discharge of pollutants to water resources has increased leading to extensive pollution. Second, there has been an exhaustive abstraction of freshwater from the available sources, which is a form of pollution.

In China, the major sources of water pollution include wastewater from the municipal, industries, and agricultural emissions. The industrial revolution in China led to the improved economic status of the country, which encouraged urban migration and increased agricultural activities to feed the growing population (Khan and Chang 2555). The government and other stakeholders failed to come up with the necessary policies and implementation mechanisms to ensure that wastewater disposal was safe and sustainable. The major contributing factor to water pollution was the lack of efficient urban infrastructure to collect and treat sewage and industrial wastewater. Therefore, some of this form of water ended up in water resources, thus leading to massive pollution.

Hi and Cheng argue that industrial wastewater disposal in China had been a historical problem even before the 1950s when the manufacturing sector started to grow exponentially (59). Therefore, the rapid industrial transformation that has been witnessed in the country has compounded this problem further. Specifically, small-scale manufacturing plants and other family-based industrial activities formed a significant part of this problem. These businesses did not have the resources to use modern and efficient technologies to avoid the production of large amounts of wastewater and other industrial waste products. Additionally, the waste produced by these businesses was disposed of without the necessary treatment. Different companies contribute to water pollution in diverse ways, and they are classified based on the nature of pollutants that they emit. For example, the paper industry is the leading contributor to wastewater. On the other hand, the metal processing and manufacturing industry contribute largely to heavy metal pollution of water resources.

Due to industrialization and economic growth, urban migration has also impacted water resources negatively through pollution and depletion. China has been experiencing the largest scale of rural-urban migration relative to other countries around the world (Xiao et al. 2953). In 2017, the country’s urban population was at 58.52 percent, which is slightly higher than that of the world that currently averages at 54.74 percent (Xiao et al. 2953). If the current trend remains constant, it is expected that over 1 billion people will be living in urban areas in the next two decades. This unusual growth in urban population has increased water consumption and municipal wastewater discharge. Despite the government’s efforts to deal with this problem, the construction of the required infrastructure has been outpaced by the growth of urban population and the mushrooming of industries around the country. Additionally, rural towns did not have any established wastewater collection and treatment systems. Therefore, when some industries expanded to these areas, wastewater was discharged directly into small rivers, which feed larger ones that eventually serve numerous waterways and lakes leading to extensive water pollution.

Impact from International Trade

The effect of international trade among different countries on water resources is an important area of study to understand the involved dynamics. Zhang et al. argue that when countries trade internationally, virtual water flows between them inform of the water used in the manufacturing of the traded goods (3544). As such, the inflow of products implies that virtual water enters the system thus reducing the pressure on the domestic water resources. On the other hand, the country that exports goods also sends away virtual water, thus exerting pressure on the local water resources. China is disadvantaged by this phenomenon given that its economic development largely relies on the exportation of locally produced products. Currently, China exports products to virtually every country around the world, which means that it exerts intense pressure on domestic water resources. This problem is compounded by the issues discussed earlier in this paper including uneven spatial distribution of water resources in the country, extensive pollution due to industrial growth and rural-urban migration, and agricultural water demands in the northern part of the region.

Initially, understanding the impacts of international trade on water resources focused on agricultural activities. The assumption was that agricultural products are classified as high water intensity, and thus they consume a large share of water in production and processing. However, the input-output framework has been used to quantify virtual water flows in China, and the results paint a different picture from what was presumed earlier. Zhang et al. found out that China, as a whole, “is a net virtual water exporter, although the agricultural sector is a net importer” (3545). This assertion means that China exports more virtual water as compared to the amounts that it imports. This study also established that the net virtual water export in China accounts for about 9 percent of the total usage in the country (Zhang et al. 3556). In some areas, such as Tianjin province, 63 percent of the available water is exported as virtual water.

The trend of virtual water exportation has grown in tandem with economic growth in the country. For instance, “The annual net virtual water export was estimated at 39.04 billion cu m in 2002 and 68.18 billion cu m in 2007. This represents an increase of 74 per cent over five years” (Yang et al. 321). Different sectors contribute disparately to this phenomenon. For example, the textile, wearing, and electrical goods and communication industries account for 63 percent of the total virtual water that is exported from the country. Every sector has been tasked to come up with countermeasures to address this problem. However, the water-use efficiency systems used by individual sectors have failed to offset the extra virtual water exports coming from the unparalleled growth of international trade. Ultimately, the available water resources in China are strained through depletion and pollution. The government has to think of ways to balance between the need for economic growth and development and the conservation of water resources to avoid an environmental crisis in the future.

Impact on Water Quality

The state of water quality in China has been declining following the intense pollution and exploitation of the resource due to urban migration, the growth of industries, and increased agricultural activities. Currently, there is “poor groundwater quality due to the natural geochemical background and anthropogenic pollution is a serious concern, with poor or very poor quality water observed in nearly 80% of groundwater monitoring wells in 17 Northern provinces” (Hou et al. 16). This level of pollution has been caused mainly by the increased discharge of pollutants and poor infrastructure to collect and treat wastewater. Additionally, the available water resources are poorly managed, and the current enforcement of environmental regulations is weak. The majority of rivers and dams are highly polluted. Therefore, the quality of water in China is poor. At the same time, the country is exporting excessive amounts of virtual water to other countries while bearing the burden of the associated pollution.


The rapid economic growth in China has affected water resources in the country tremendously. The major issues affecting water in China include extensive pollution due to the growth of industries, agricultural activities, and rural-urban migration. The country is disadvantaged because the spatial distribution of water resources is uneven. While the south has the majority of the resources, the northern part has the highest demand for water. The increased water demand in the country has led to the overexploitation of the available resources. Underground water reserves are currently overdrawn, thus affecting seawater and land subsidence. Pollution is a major threat to water resources in China with almost all water bodies affected in one way or another. This aspect has contributed to poor water quality across the country. Additionally, China is a net exporter of virtual water, which strains the domestic resources. Therefore, it suffices to conclude that China’s rapid economic growth has affected its water resources and usage negatively.

Works Cited

Hi, Yuanan, and Hefa Cheng. “Water Pollution during China’s Industrial Transition.” Environmental Development, vol. 8, no. 1, 2013, pp. 57-73.

Hou, Deyi, et al. “An Emerging Market for Groundwater Remediation in China: Policies, Statistics, And Future Outlook.” Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering, vol. 12, no. 1, 2018, pp. 16-28.

Khan, Mehran, and Yen-Chiang Chang. “Environmental Challenges and Current Practices in China – A Thorough Analysis.” Sustainability, vol. 10, no. 7, 2018, pp. 2547-2567.

Li, Peiyue, and Hui Qian. “Water Resources Research to Support a Sustainable China.” International Journal of Water Resources Development, vol. 34, no. 3, 2018, pp. 327-336.

Liu, Junguo, et al. “Water Conservancy Projects in China: Achievements, Challenges and Way Forward.” Global Environmental Change, vol. 23, 2013, pp. 633-643.

Wang, Yahua, et al. “Water Demand Framework and Water Development: The Case of China.” Water, vol. 10, no. 12, 2018, pp. 1860-1876.

Xiao, Yiping, et al. “How Far Has China’s Urbanization Gone?” Sustainability, vol. 10, no. 8, 2018, pp. 2953-2970.

Yang, Hong, et al. “The Impact of China’s Economic Growth on its Water Resources: A Regional and Sectoral Assessment.” Rebalancing and Sustaining Growth in China, edited by Huw McKay and Ligang Song, ANU E Press, 2012, pp. 309-328.

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