Cheap water just encourages waste

Almost every year, part of China suffers its worst drought in decades, bringing severe water shortages, failed crops, electricity outages and financial hardship for urban and rural residents alike. This year, it is the turn of people living in central and southern provinces around the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, an area usually considered to have abundant water. Not for six decades have conditions been so dry, with rainfall in some places 80 per cent lower than normal, leaving waterways and lakes parched and drinking supplies threatened. In the depths of such misery, it is normal to look for causes and, while climate change would seem a possible factor, it is the Three Gorges Dam that is getting most attention.

The dam is easy prey after the central government admitted last month to serious flaws with the world’s biggest hydroelectric project. While hailing the benefits, it acknowledged “pressing issues” that needed urgent attention, including ecological protection, prevention of geological disasters and the dam’s disruption to navigation and water supplies downriver. Approval for construction was won in 1992 based on pledges that there was no danger of such problems; since its completion in 2006, there have been minor earthquakes, deadly landslides, damaging changes to the river’s ecology and devastating floods – which the dam was supposed to control. As the drought drags on in the eight provinces through which the nation’s largest and most economically important watercourse passes, it is easy to squarely pin the blame on the dam.

There is no disputing that it is in part at fault. The dam, like thousands of others around the country, is as much about electricity production as providing for everyday water needs – and this year, the balance has been poorly judged. It has to be remembered, though, that it is record-low rainfall behind the drought. The focus should instead be on the wider issue of better water management.

Authorities have done a poor job. Prices have increased sharply over the past two decades, but at about 2.30 yuan (HK$2.76) per tonne, China still has some of the world’s cheapest water. There has been inadequate investment in infrastructure, pollution levels are high and water quality is poor. Low prices have led to a great deal of wastage.

Water is one of the nation’s most valuable resources. Providing it for a minimal charge and allowing it to be misused and wasted inevitably leads to a crisis during times of need. Charging a reasonable price will allow suppliers to turn a profit and build better irrigation, recycling and storage infrastructure. The prevailing attitude that water is a basic right has to be changed. Water should be valued, priced and managed like any other key strategic resource. The latest drought is an opportunity to foster such thinking through a long-overdue education campaign.

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