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China’s Water Stress Is on the Rise

Water stress levels in many parts of China are very high, due to low levels of water supply and very high levels of demand. And new research shows the situation is worsening.

Using the baseline water stress metric developed for WRI’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, we compared water stress in China between 2001 and 2010, the latest year for which catchment data are available. This analysis paints a much more accurate than previous analyses, using detailed freshwater withdrawal data from more than 300 prefectures and high spatial resolution grid data. We found that the percentage of land area in China facing high and extremely high water stress increased from 28 to 30 percent, meaning 678 million people now live in highly water-stressed areas.

Water stress is defined ( “Aqueduct Global Maps 2.1.”)as the total annual water withdrawals (municipal, industrial and agricultural) as a percent of the total annual available surface water. High values indicate more competition among users—a value above 40 percent is considered as “high water stress,” and above 80 percent as “extremely high.”

Overall, water stress across 54 percent of China’s total land area worsened from 2001 to 2010, while 8 percent of the country’s total land area, an area slightly larger than the U.S. state of Texas, moved into a higher category of water stress.

Worsening water stress is already a cause for concern in China, and the threat is growing. Water stress in Ningxia Province, for example, is projected to increase by 40-70 percent by 2040 due to climate change’s effect on available surface water and the influence of socioeconomic factors.

China has already seen how strong water policies can lead to a decrease in water stress in the agricultural sector. Depending on each catchment’s unique water use and water stress situation, government and corporate policies can support more efficient and sustainable water use by: encouraging cultivation of less water-intensive crops; improving water-use efficiency in water-intensive industries like coal mining and electric power production; and promoting more water-conserving lifestyles amongst consumers. China may be facing mounting water threats, but it can start reversing course with the right policies and management practices.

What’s Driving Increased Water Stress? Read the research Baseline Water Stress: China