An Update Report

One fundamental attitude shared by Buddhism and science is the commitment to 
keep searching for reality by empirical means and to be willing to disregard
accepted or long-held positions if our search finds the truth is different.

HH Dalai Lama

Courtesy NASA: The rugged snow-covered peaks of the Tibet/Nepal Himalayas, taken from
the International Space Station 200 miles up.  The 7th highest peak on Earth,Dhaulagiri, 
is the high point on the horizon at left. In the foreground is the southern Tibetan plateau.

The future of China: 

Seventy percent of water-use is for agricultural irrigation. Expanding it was the key factor in tripling the world's grain harvest between 1950 and 2000. Yet as water demand tripled over the last 50 years, we have been accumulating a water-deficit.  It is still largely invisible, because most of it results from overpumping aquifers (undergound water reservoirs). 

China and India, with their huge popuations, are the biggest grain producers in the world. In both counties, millions of new irrigation wells have exceeded the replenishment rate of the aquifers.  Other aquifers, like the one under the North China Plain, are non-replenishable: when those become depleted,  agriculture in the region  ceases permanently.  The groundwater tables are rapidly depleting in these countries, home to most of the world's population.  Both have also been diverting water from agriculture to industrialization and urbanization.  Producing 1 ton of grain takes 1000 tons of water. The loss of agricultural production can only be made up by importing grain.

The only big grain producer whose production is in decline

China's wheat crop peaked in 1997 at 123 million tons, then dropped 23% by 2005. Its rice crop has declined, partly due to water shortages--from 140 (1997) to 127 million tons (2005).   The semi-arid north China plain produces half the country's wheat and a third of its corn. Over-pumping has depleted the shallow aquifer, so people are drilling deeper to the non-replenishable fossil aquifer. Now that too is dropping 3 metres a year. 

Throughout China, water demand for industry has risen dramatically over the last decade, at the expense of agriculture. The government hopes to establish itself as a world power through  breakneck economic growth, consolidated by hosting the Olympic Games. An inconvenient ecological truth lies in the background. None other than the World Bank has characterized what will ensue if Chinese water use and supply is not re-balanced: 
Catastrophic consequences for future generations.

Farmers are losing their share of  shrinking water supplies through government-sanctioned expropriation.  Cities can drill deeper wells than farmers can afford and simply outbid farmers. This is creating a 'food bubble economy' where the harvest is inflated by unsustainable water practices.  A serious fall in future food production looks inevitable.  This is a classic ecological overshoot and decline scenario. The International Water Management Institute stated: 
China and India.... have literally been having a free ride over the last 2 or 3 decades by depleting their groundwater resources. The penalty for mismanagement of this valuable resource is now coming due, and it is no exaggeration to say that the results could be catastrophic for these countries.

Disappearing rivers and lakes

China's largest freshwater lake, Poyang, lies in the south-eastern province of Jiangxi.  It is the winter home of 98% of the world's Siberian crane population. This famous lake fluctuates between a winter dry period and summer flood season, and its hydrology depends on the Yangtse river. In 2007, it provided a spectacular and disturbing example of synergy between  global warming and groundwater depletion. The surface area shrank from over 3,000 square kilometres (summer) to 50 square kilometres (winter). This was 10 times worse than the previous year's figures. Poyang Lake in winter 2007 looked like this:

The official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, reported that 100,000 people were suffering drinking-water shortages around Poyang.  One village could use only 4 of its 56 wells. The government has still not amended regulations on the industrial use of water from Poyang by factories near the lake. Grave environmental problems, aggravated by the stubborn pursuit of economic growth, are commonplace in China.

The Yangtse is suffering its most severe drought for 50 years.  It is facing further burdens imposed by central government's diversion of water to the parched north of the country. More pressure comes from huge dams constructed along the river, such as at the Three Gorges.
Yangtze River
water will be insufficient to replenish Poyang lake in dry seasons in the future, because of climate change and exploitation of water resources.
Jiang Tong, Chinese Academy of Sciences


Yangste River, Yangzhou, 2007

In April 2008, the middle & lower reaches of the Yangste were at their lowest level since records began.

Poyang  Lake provides a compelling example of China's multiple water crises. In March 2007, six million people were short of water in Sichuan  province.  By June, Liaoning province in the northeast was experiencing its worst drought for 56 years, affecting a million people and 1.5 million hectares of cropland. The worst drought in a decade is currently affecting almost the whole of China. This year the Chinese state council made an extraordinary acknowledgement:    By 2030, China will have exploited all its available water supplies to the limit

Jialing River at Chongquing, 2007 drought
Water levels of  major rivers (Yangtse, Yellow & Jialing) reached record lows due to warm temperatures. 



Who will feed China? 

In 1995, the eminent environmental scientist Lester Brown published Who Will Feed China? (Worldwatch Institute, Environmental Alert Series) urging a coherent response to the warning signs of high population, shrinking cropland, and water scarcity. The Great Chinese Famine of 1959-1961 claimed 30 million lives, leaving an  indelible impression on the national psyche of 20% of the world's people. Their country’s route to development has been fundamentally different than that of the West, because it was already densely populated before its industrial revolution. The pressure of  industrialization has displaced cropland, leading to a net decline in food production, despite rising land productivity. 

As well as cropland loss, China has extensively diverted irrigation water to non-farm uses. The problem is that 80% of  its grain harvest comes from irrigated land. Shrinking food resources are now compounded by rising grain consumption. Incomes have been rising so people have been adding meat, poultry, dairy, and even beer to their diet. These products, higher in the food chain, demand even more grain. Despite its population policy, the population of China continues to increase by 12 million a year. 



Global warming effects at the headwaters of the Yellow River

Climate change is wreaking havoc at the birthplace of China's mother river. The plight of the Yellow River is a grave warning. Millions of people are at risk from climate change and the world must act now to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Li Mo Xuan, Chinese scientific expert

Recent scientific studies have established that global warming is causing widespread ecological decline at the headwaters of the
Yellow River, threatening water supplies to 120 million people. Melting glaciers and permafrost are breaking up and drying out the land, turning grasslands into deserts and leaving lakes and rivers without water.

The Tibetan Plateau, the roof of the world, is the source of both the Yangtze and Yellow, China's longest rivers. It has seen an overall temperature rise of nearly one degree celsius during the past 30 years. The higher the altitude, the faster the temperature has been rising.  Over the last 30 years, the shrinkage rate of the glaciers has been 10 times faster than that during the previous 300 years. The headwater region plays the major role in supplying the whole river basin, providing 55% of the water for the first 550km.
From here it is a domino effect that harms the flora, fauna, landscape and people of the Yellow River source region, and ultimately the river itself....Water shortage and reduced run-off at the source will have far-reaching impacts on the economy, society and people - not only in the source region but in the middle and low reaches of the Yellow River.
Professor Liu Shiyin, Team Leader 


Tibetan glaciers govern the fate of Asian civilization


The Tibetan plateau is the highest and largest in the world. It is guarded to the south by the Himalayas, to the north by the Kunlun range (see below), and to the west by the Hindu Kush and Pamir ranges. It contains 46,000 glaciers, at an average height of 13,000 ft above sea level. It is the Earth’s largest ice mass outside the poles. We now know that climate warming is causing deglaciation at a rate of 7% a year. Aerial surveys over the last 30 years show that snow lines are rising, wetlands are shrinking, and desertification is increasing throughout Tibet. In 2006, one third of the climate observation stations in Tibet reported all-time high temperatures. The average temperature there is rising more than 7 times as fast as in China proper.


The winter accumulation of snow on high mountains is compressed to form ice caps and glaciers. In summer the glaciers melt slowly, constantly feeding the rivers below. They are reservoirs in the sky, present since long before humans practiced agriculture. Glaciers are a pre-condition of agriculture in much of the world. Food supply is critically dependent on them.  Asia’s greatest rivers—the Yangtse, Yellow, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong—derive their summer flow from the melt water of Tibetan glaciers. As those glaciers retreat, the volume of water in rivers increase at first, causing widespread flooding. Then it goes into rapid decline.

For example, in India the Gangotri glacier provides 70% of the summer flow of the River Ganges. The Gangotri is shrinking twice as fast as it was 20 years ago. Unless China and India make a radical reality-check and reform their  dependence on fossil fuels, devastating water shortages for hundreds of millions of people could bring about their collapse as nation states.

Northern Tibet and the Kunlun mountains from Space, courtesy NASA


Avoiding meltdown, shrinking harvests & famine 

Lester Brown's Plan B 3.o (2008) discusses the consequences of  melting mountain glaciers in the Himalayas and Tibet-Qinghai Plateau. Many glaciers could melt entirely by 2035 unless business-as-usual and carbon gas emissions change. In the river basins of the Yellow, Yangtze, Ganges and Indus rivers, the loss of  dry-season flow would devastate irrigation and harvests.  How dangerous is the ongoing shrinkage of underground water, combined with the shrinkage of glaciers and river water?  'Permanent famine' is a  definite possibility.

World food prices have recently climbed to record highs..In
China, social unrest could easily result from tightening food supplies. Food security is highly sensitive there because of the 1959–61 famine. The country is likely to try to hold down domestic food prices by using its massive dollar holdings to import grain from the
United States. In any event, the economists who project ‘ascendant world power'  status for China show no evidence of understanding anything about hydrology, agriculture, plant biology or global warming.

The essential  challenge is to design national energy policies to save the glaciers upon which China, India, Tibet, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Burma all depend. Right now Asia is pursuing an economic growth policy based on fossil fuels that can be described as 'mutual assured destruction'. China and India in particular need to cut carbon emissions by 80% as soon as possible. Asian civilization as we now know it cannot survive partial decarbonization by mid-century. Such dates are proposed by politicians for the convenience of  the fossil fuel  industry. They have no genuine bearing on the survival of the human species or the biosphere.

Ironically, the two countries that are building most of the new coal-fired power plants, China and India, are precisely the ones whose food security is most massively threatened by the carbon emitted from burning coal. It is now in their interest to try and save their mountain glaciers by shifting energy investment from coal-fired power plants into energy efficiency and into wind farms, solar thermal power plants, and geothermal power plants. China, for example, can double its current electrical generating capacity from wind alone. 
Lester Brown, 2008


Coal or Renewables in China: a Choice that will Decide the Fate of Asia

In China, a conflict between fossil fuels and renewable energy is emerging that will have  unprecedented environmental consequences. We can observe pollution levels as bad as Victorian England, combined with diverse forms of ecological collapse.  There is the potential for ongoing famine.  Only one of China's two energy futures is survivable.


The Chinese Government has created a public relations 'shell game' - publicizing green development in Beijing for the Olympics, while the rest of the country is contaminated by more and more coal burning. This has created the world's worst air pollution problems, and propelled China to overtake the U.S as the largest source of carbon gas emissions. 

Chinese society strongly emphasizes reputation and  social standing. Consumption and electricity usage are seen as enhancing these. In China, there is no negative stigma attached to lying if it ‘saves face’ for family, self or country. The roaring economy threatens the climate of the whole world, so China 'makes face' with that world by showing a 'front face' of solving Beijing's pollution problems. Its true face is the ongoing construction of hundreds more pulverized-coal fired power plants. Coal continues to expand, and along with it, affiliated corporations in electricity generation, railroads, mining and so forth. Unemployment is the principal concern of central government - trumping environmental protection at every turn. Chinese coal mining, burning and imports reached the highest-ever levels ever in the last 2 years. These observations (Language Matters)  lend credibility to an assertion made by Professor James Lovelock in his book, The Revenge of Gaia:
We will do our best to survive, but sadly I cannot see the United States or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back in time, and they are the main source of emissions. The worst will happen and the survivors will have to adapt to a hell of a climate.



 On the positive side, there is a national  drive for renewable energy. The lure of  the huge Chinese market and its low production costs for exports have encouraged foreign and domestic firms to set up both wind farms and turbine production plants across China.  The government recently raised its wind power target for the year 2020 from 20 to 30 gigawatts.  The major national power firms must generate at least  10% of electricity from renewables by 2020.

China's vast and accessible interior and coasts make wind power a favourite. It is generating a lot of new business for the top international equipment makers (Vestas, Gamesa and General Electric).  Gamesa opened its first Chinese factory recently, hoping to cut its worldwide costs by 25% through component production in China. Vestas, the industry pioneer,  is doubling capacity at its Tianjin plant, to supply both the local and international wind-power markets. 

Germany has the largest installed wind power capacity (22 gigawatts) in the world, while the U.S. has 17 GW and Spain has 15 GW. In March 2008, Spain registered production of half its total electricity needs from renewable energy. Although China is way behind in installed wind capacity,  in 2007 it installed the most wind power of any country - 3.4 GW for the year.


In conclusion...

Competition between coal and renewable energy in China is now playing a principal role in determining the fate of civilization. Coal burning is the principal driver of global warming. If degenerative climate change crosses a tipping point, it will become self-sustaining (runaway global warming).  China dramatically embodies the conflict between the two energy futures of the human species. Only one of those futures can survive natural selection, the ultimate force of biological evolution. It is not coal. 

We should be the heart and mind of the Earth, not its malady. So let us be brave and cease thinking of human needs and rights alone, and see that we have harmed the living Earth and need to make our peace with Gaia. We must do it while we are still strong enough to negotiate, and not a broken rabble led by brutal war lords. Most of all, we should remember that we are a part of it, and it is indeed our home.
Professor James Lovelock FRS

With appreciation for the indispensable work of  Lester Brown