Mitigation of China’s water scarcity and water pollution by adjusting its economy and development patterns

Li, Xian (2021) Mitigation of China’s water scarcity and water pollution by adjusting its economy and development patterns. Doctoral thesis, University of East Anglia.

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Water scarcity and water pollution have constituted great challenges to the world, especially Republic of China (referred as China throughout the whole thesis for simplification), a country constrained by its inadequate water endowment, uneven water distribution, and degraded water quality. Yet current water engineering projects and stringent water regulations are unable to throughout address its water dilemmas, as the interrelationship between water status and economy and development patterns, and the consideration of water footprint or virtual water embodied in commercial trade and supply chains are often neglected when making policies. Hence, this thesis proposes a potential route to alleviate China’s water scarcity and water pollution through the adjustment of its economy and development patterns with the ultimate goal of achieving China’s water sustainability without stunting its economy and development.

This thesis first explicitly describes the main methods it applies to account China’s water scarcity and water pollution across 42 economic sectors at the national and the city levels from production and consumption perspectives, which are the compilation of China’s water datasets and the application of Environmentally Extended Input-Output Analysis (EEIOA). Regarding water datasets, four indicators are chosen for compilation, including water withdrawal, water use, ammonia nitrogen (NH4+) discharge, and COD discharge. And the application of EEIOA includes Single Regional Environmentally Extended Input-Output Analysis (SREEIOA) and Multi-Regional Environmentally Extended Input-Output Analysis (MREEIOA).

This thesis then conducts four case studies to illustrate how China’s water scarcity and water pollution has been negatively and positively affected by its economy and development patterns in small and large scales respectively, and to suggest potential approaches to mitigating China’s water scarcity and water pollution by adjusting its economy and development patterns.

Case Study 1 explores the water utilisation in five energy sectors of cities in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei (BTH) region, and discusses how synergistic development of the region could facilitate the water utilisation of energy sectors in this region. Water sits at the nexus of energy, and great water supply could guarantee a diverse supply of reliable, affordable and sustainable energy. This case study calculates the 2012 water withdrawn directly for five energy sectors, and total water withdrawal embodied in these energy supply chains by applying city-level SREEIOA. The results suggest that: First, synergistic development could greatly improve water utilisation in electricity in the BTH region. Electricity accounted for 69% (669 Mts/965 Mts) and 72% (8857 Mts/12318 Mts) of the total direct and embodied water withdrawal in five energy sectors respectively, however, this energy sector had low water efficiency, which could be improved by forming a complete supply chain in the region. Second, synergistic development enables each city to optimise its advantageous energy sectors, which promotes the overall water utilisation in the BTH region, such as cities dominated by energy resources excavation (Tangshan and Handan), energy processing (Beijing and Tianjin), or both (Cangzhou). Third, synergistic development encourages well-developed cities to provide technological guidance to the rest of cities in the BTH region. Of all the cities in the BTH region, Beijing and Tianjin had the largest direct (203 million tonnes (Mts) and 148 Mts) and embodied (6690 Mts and 1476 Mts) water withdrawals in energy sectors and were ranked top in water efficiency (4 x 10-4 tonne/CNY and 3 x 10-4 tonne/CNY).

Case Study 2 assesses the overall reduction of anthropogenic NH4+ discharge attributed by economic progress and development in the Pearl River Basin (PRB). NH4+ is a critical pollutant that contributes to eutrophication, and thus research on approaches that trigger changes of NH4+ discharge in the PRB can hugely improve the offshore environment. In this case study, 2011 and 2017 NH4+ discharge data across industries and economic sectors were compiled and analysed for cities in the PRB. According to the results: first, more attention was paid on NH4 + discharge reduction in household, agriculture and industry. The overall reduction of NH4 + discharge in the PRB was mainly attributed by household (149.91-86.77 thousand tonnes (Kts)), agriculture (66.55-36.35 Kts) and industry (26.84-15.87 Kts). Second, the Pearl River Delta (PRD) was identified as a critical area in the PRB for the overall NH4+ discharge reduction due to its economic dynamics and dense population. With only 8 cities, the PRD accounted for approximately 34% (118.45 Kts/353.23 Kts in 2011; 74.76 Kts/217.86 Kts in 2017) of the total reduction of NH4+ discharge in the PRB. Third, awakening civic awareness was the determinant of the reduction of NH4+ discharge in household in the PRB as almost all the cities had declined NH4+ discharge in household but increased population. Fourth, economic structure transformation and technological improvement also promoted the NH4 + discharge reduction of economic sectors (except household). The most significant decreases in NH4 + discharge could be seen in cities or their economic sectors with the sharpest decline of NH4 + intensities, such as Ganzhou’s and Foshan’s nonferrous melting, Nanning’s chemical product, Foshan’s and Shenzhen’s textile, and Laibin’s agricultural product. Fifth, however, more focuses should be further put on cities with increased anthropogenic NH4+ discharge.

Case Study 3 examines the imbalance between China’s water stress and its virtual water flows embodied in economic trade in China’s 313 cities, and points out the urgent need to introduce economic instruments to alleviate the water imbalance. City, as the basic administrative unit, undertakes great responsibilities for obtaining, distributing, and managing its water resources in the supply chain (Zheng et al., 2019). Therefore, this case study accounts China’s city-level virtual water flows across economic sectors for the first time by applying the 2015 MREEIOA. The main findings include: First, it is necessary to introduce economic instruments to ease the water stress of China’s regions which were mainly responsible for water export in agriculture and industry. They were Northeast and Northwest (agriculture), East China and Central China (industry). Second, economic instruments need to be introduced to support major water exporters as they tended to suffer from more severe water stress but gained less economic profits. It was seen that water imported by certain cities required rallying support of its surrounding or even cities, especially major water exporters with the most enormous volumes of water outflows but suffered from severe water stress. And these water exporters were often oriented by low value-added but highly water-intensive economic sector agriculture. Third, there were also three types of cities or economic sectors that required the aid of economic instruments to mitigate their water stress: (1) cities that were either highly self-dependent or heavily dependent on the other cities’ water supply as they were more likely to confront potential water vulnerability (such as Urumqi, Wuhan, Shanghai); (2) cities had great water investment but gained low economic returns so that their economic carrying capacity were rather low, such as Urumqi. (3) cities/economic sectors that undertook great responsibilities for water export but the responsibilities were in fact beyond their capabilities, such as Maanshan’s chemical and metal&nonmetal and Daqing’s mining.

Case Study 4 uncovers the positive impacts brought by the shifts in economy and development patterns on national water management. Over the past decades, China has undergone profound social and economic transitions, which evokes urgent needs to quantitively analyse its influences on China’s water scarcity and water pollution in the supply chain. Hence, in this case study, national data of water use and chemical oxygen demand (COD) discharge were compiled and then applied in EEIOA to detect the dynamics of China’s direct and embodied water across individual economic sectors from 2010 to 2015. It is found that: First, domestic energy policy and economic stimulus optimised the water use and reduced water pollution in key producer (electricity) and consumer (construction) sectors in the virtual water supply chains. Electricity’s direct water use declined due to the transition of China’s energy structure from coal to renewable energy. Construction’s embodied water use and COD discharge skyrocketed (65-92 Bts) as infrastructure construction and real estate could boost the national economy in the post-financial crisis era (Giang & Sui Pheng, 2011). Second, urbanisation alleviated China’s water crisis to some extent. Urban consumption occupied the largest percentages (over 30%) of embodied water use and COD discharge, but embodied water intensities in urban consumption were far lower than those in rural consumption. Third, the ‘new normal’ phase witnessed the optimisation of China’s economic/industrial structures and this improved China’s water status. Embodied water use in light-manufacturing and tertiary sectors increased while that in heavy-manufacturing sectors (except chemicals and transport
equipment) dropped. Fourth, the changes in international situation also provided China some opportunities to optimise its water structure. In the post-financial crisis era, China’s water use (116-80 billion tonnes (Bts)) and COD discharge (3.95-2.22 Mts) embodied in export tremendously decreased while its total export values (11-25 trillion Chinese Yuan (CNY)) doubled. Under globalisation and the rise of South-South trade, China started to relocate water use and COD discharge embodied in production activities for low-end sectors, such as textile, to other developing countries, such as textile.

This thesis then summarises the above-mentioned findings obtained from all the case studies. It can be concluded that China’s economy and development patterns exert the following negative effects on its water scarcity and water pollution: (1) Economic disparities and development gaps could increase water inequality; (2) Unclear division of labour and unoptimised industrial structure could easily lead to low water efficiency, especially in water-intensive industries/economic sectors; (3) Economic trade without much consideration of virtual water embodied in supply chains could trigger imbalance between water stress, virtual water supply. On the bright side, China’s economy and development patterns also bring the positive effects to its water scarcity and water pollution in the following aspects: (1) The optimisation of economic structure and the fulfillment of industrial transformation could greatly ease water scarcity and water pollution; (2) Economic and social development could also attribute to the mitigation of water scarcity and water pollution. Based on these effects, this thesis then proposes potential approaches to alleviating China’s water scarcity and water pollution by adjusting its economy and development patterns. These measures include: (1) strengthening regional cooperation and encouraging synergistic development; (2) proactively reacting to changes in international situation and making corresponding domestic policy; (3) re-scheduling supply chains and economic trade patterns by introducing the concept of water footprint. To support these measures, this thesis also puts forward some policy recommendations, which include: (1) adjusting water pricing and appropriating water subsidy in less-developed administrative units or in water-intensive /water-polluted industries or economic sectors; (2) introducing water rights trade; (3) adhering to the principles of development economics and circular economy with the ultimate goal of achieving China’s water sustainability.

This thesis makes great contributions to the existing academic field. Theoretically, this thesis makes a breakthrough by conducting China’s city-level water footprint research with the consideration of both water quantity and water quality indicators. This bridges the research gap about limited city-level water footprint studies/water-energy nexus in water footprint studies, and limited water footprint studies related to water quality in the current research filed. This thesis also fills the absence of the existing literature by tracing water pollutants triggered by specific anthropogenic activities of all the cities within a river basin. Methodologically, this thesis compiles a water withdrawal dataset for China’s 313 cities and a NH4+ discharge dataset for the PRB’s cities for the very first time. It also applies city-level multi-regional environmentally extended input-output table in China’s water footprint study for the very first time. From the empirical and policy-related perspectives, this thesis chooses representative regions or cities as case studies so that empirical results and policy recommendations could be partly mirrored in other regions or cities at similar development stages.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Faculty \ School: Faculty of Social Sciences > School of Global Development (formerly School of International Development)
Depositing User: Nicola Veasy
Date Deposited: 02 Nov 2023 12:34
Last Modified: 02 Nov 2023 12:34


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