Water shortages strangle China’s inland fisheries

Published on
January 26, 2012

China’s inland fisheries face a grim future due to chronic droughts gripping the country’s major central provinces. As China chases economic growth through investment in infrastructure and manufacturing, the twin pressures of urbanization and industrialization are siphoning the country’s water resources and putting inland fishermen out of work.

Boats have been tied this month on Poyang Lake, the country’s largest freshwater lake, and on tributary rivers in the southerly province of Jiangxi. The water-surface area of the lake shrank to less than 200 square kilometers this month, or five percent of its full size.

With water being piped and trucked in from neighboring regions for 1 million residents around the lake, the drought has been blamed on a 20 percent drop in rainfall from 2010 to 2011. Dredging of local river beds for sand has also caused water levels to recede. Water levels on the Ganjiang River, the largest river feeding the lake, has seen water levels in its middle and lower reaches drop to a record low.

The drought is also pushing the prices of freshwater fish: the per-kilo price of carp, the key freshwater staple in China, has climbed from RMB 12 to RMB20 between 2010 and the end of 2011 in Jiangxi, according to data published by the Nanchang Evening News, a leading daily in the provincial capital of Nanchang. A March-to-May ban on fishing the lake enforced since 2002 will likely run for the entire 2012, suggested the newspaper, drawing on interviews with local fishermen.

Having seen their average annual income has shrunk from a peak of RMB 4,000 to RMB 1,000 in 2011, many Poyang Lake fishermen have abandoned fishing to look for manual work in major cities. Some have used their boats to fish for scrap metal, using magnets to detect and collect metals to sell to local steel furnaces.

Demand for water in China’s drier northern regions suggests a bleak outlook for fishing in southern regions like Jiangxi. Worringly, the water resources of key inland freshwater fish-producing provinces like Jiangxi, Hubei and Hunan will be further curtailed by a pipe diverting water from the south to Beijing, according to a leading local water expert in an interview.

“China’s water crisis will affect central agricultural provinces like Jiangxi and Hunan,” said Hu Kanping, director of the Department of Research and Communication in Chinese Ecological Civilization Research and Promotion, a think-tank under the Ministry of Environmental Protection. The first phase of the South-to-North Water Diversion will be completed in 2013. While the massive diversion project is projected to supply Beijing with 1 billion cubic meters of water per year, “there’s still 700 million cubic meters which will have to be found somewhere.” 

Hu points to statistics from the Beijing Water Conservation Office, which show the city has experienced a long and serious dry spell since 1999, cutting usable water supplies in half. Trees have been planted in the dry riverbed of Beijing’s Chaobai River to prevent desertification. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was a source of carp fish supplies to city markets. 

Another river, the ironically titled Qinghe (translates as Pure or Clean River) has become a receptacle of sewage from housing in the north of the Chinese capital after the local population swelled from 800,000 to 2.9 million between 2003 and 2011. City authorities have promised to have extra sewage treatment capacity in place by summer.

To ease the water crunch, Hu believes major cities like Beijing have to restrict “luxury water consumption” activities. There are now more than 3,000 spas and bathhouses, compared with just 39 at the end of 1989, with each bathhouse using an average 15,000 tons per year, according to Hu. Similarly, he said, the city needs to regulate more than 9,000 car wash companies in Beijing, which use more than 30 million tons of water a year. Hu Kanping said raising the price of water isn’t the sole solution to China's water crisis — rates for households has been raised from 3.7 yuan per cubic meter to 4 yuan per cubic meter, “but some people want to get their money’s worth when they go to bath clubs and take their time.”

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