more than physics

People talk about water scarcity like it’s a physics problem: why don’t we tow icebergs from Alaska to alleviate the southwest’s water issues?  what about pumping water from the Great Lakes across the Rockies?  Sometimes that sort of grand thinking works, like the diversion of California’s water resources from the upper Sierra Nevada mountains southward to the Central Valley and Southern California.  But that’s only part of the equation.  One reason that California’s State Water Project and Central Valley Project are successful is that the source is virtually pristine snowmelt.  Move clean water from an area of relative abundance to an area of relative scarcity, add in a comment about humans adapting the environment to their needs, and voila, problem solved!

In my last post, I remarked on China’s limited water resources and their lack of wastewater treatment.  Well, not surprisingly, the Chinese government is trying their darndest to move water around to alleviate chronic water scarcity in the north (think Beijing) with relative abundant water from parts south (think the Yangtze River).  They’re apparently getting close on parts of this great diversion – the Danjiangkou Reservoir should be sending water northward next year.  The physics problem has been solved for a mere $81 billion!  Good job.

One small problem: the water to be transported is currently not fit for drinking.

A water pollution plan issued by the State Council, or China’s cabinet requires that the water quality for all five rivers that flow into the Danjiangkou meet a “grade III” standard by 2015.  But four of those rivers are now rated “grade V,” deemed for “agricultural use only” and the fifth river is considered “grade IV,” for “industrial use only,” reports China’s state-run news agency Xinhua.  “The target is very unlikely to be met as many pollution control projects lag behind schedule due to a fund shortage,” said Cheng Jiagang, vice mayor of Shiyan in Hubei province.

Oh.  What kind of fund shortage, when you just spent $81 billion on construction??

I’ve remarked previously on the lack of fame associated with building brand new shiny underground water infrastructure, and this appears to be a similar problem.  According to the above article, the local government needs about $500 million (just a fraction of that $81 billion price tag!) to build a wastewater treatment plant with nearly 700 miles of sewer pipelines.  So far, they’ve shuttered “329 factories in the last few years, but that has cut revenues by $130 million annually”.

Well, I hope they can find the money.  Until then…good luck to those intending to rely upon the diverted water.  Physics ain’t everything, folks.

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a long way to go

Hello again, readers!  I’m finally rejoining the world of blogging, now that it’s been nearly 6 months since my last post.  In the meantime, I got married and changed my name — I’m now Claire Farnsworth Wildman, but otherwise blog content should remain unchanged.  I’m going to try to get into posting again once a week, and throw some links on my twitter feed when I can’t get to posting on interesting news.  Hopefully this will work!

~ Claire

So today’s post is a comment on China’s limited water supplies.  Bloomberg is noting that China’s coal mines are beginning to feel the crunch of limited water.  China has a fundamental problem that a bunch of development (agriculture and cities, and apparently many coal mines) is in the north, whereas the majority of their rainfall and streamflow is in the south.  This is not too different from the issues of the American southwest, where cities in dry areas keep expanding on the premise that they can access water from distant snowfall in the Rockies or Sierras via rivers and aqueducts.

The difference is that the US generally has pretty decent water resources (9,044 cubic meters = 2.4 million gallons per capita), but China’s are relatively sparse (2,093 cubic meters = 0.55 million gallons per capita), so moving water around won’t ultimately resolve all of their issues.

What struck me in the above article, though, was this: “…Veolia Water, which treated 1.2 billion tons of waste water in China last year…”  That sounds like use of numbers to imply large volumes of treated wastewater…but remember, China has 1.354 billion people as of January 2013.  So, one of the world’s largest water and wastewater treatment plant operators treated nearly 1 ton of wastewater per capita in China last year.  Let’s put that in perspective: an American city with low water use has about 150 gallons per day per capita, which we can assume goes to the wastewater treatment system.  This number is probably way too high for per capita water use for places without reliable drinking water supplies, but let’s use it for a back-of-the-envelope calculation:

150 gallons/day/person x 365 days/year x 8.34 lbs/gallon / (2000 lbs/ton) = 228 tons of wastewater per person in the US

Ok, again, very rough numbers.  Per capita water use is tricky to measure, but this website cites a 2006 UN Development Program report to suggest China averages something like 23 gallons/day/person (quoted as 86 liters/day/person).  Plug that in to the above equation, and you come up with 34 tons of wastewater per person in China, not including industrial wastewater.  Again, one of the world’s largest wastewater treatment companies was proud to hit the target of ~1 ton per person last year.  Whatever the per capita water use in China, it sounds like wastewater treatment has a long way to go…

fracking gets uglier

There’s plenty of controversy around fracking in the US.  But here we have a relatively informed public, with public officials who must respond to the balance of public opinion (whether it’s heightened oversight or direct election), and a pretty good basis of environmental laws.  A fair number of countries have observed our issues with fracking and environmental hazards, and said, “Thanks but no thanks.”  Notable bans have arisen in France and Germany, with proposals in the UK.  But developing countries are hungry for the cheap energy source, and China, for example, wants in, to the tune of 6.5 billion cubic meters of gas by 2015 and 100 billion cubic meters by 2020 (the US produced some 170 billion cubic meters of natural gas in 2011).

The first red flag in my mind is cutting corners.  My understanding is that the majority of the problems with aquifer contamination in Pennsylvania arose from shoddy well construction.  Pardon my stereotyping, but Chinese industries aren’t exactly known for their meticulous high-quality work, especially when there’s profit to be made…This makes me nervous.

But the second red flag upsets me more: where will the frack water come from?  China is not a country of abundant water resources, especially in the north.  And in contrast to the US or Canada, its people have little recourse if they have complaints about depleted or contaminated water resources.  Where will the water come from?  Will Chinese central planners favor industry over people?  It has happened before (just Google “chemical spill China” and see how many different incidents pop up, e.g., this one).

Never mind that it apparently takes 3 years to get environmental laws on the books, and wastewater disposal (currently one of the main problems with fracking in the US) is not one of China’s strong suits.  Fracking might help the Chinese economy, but my bet is, it’s going to get really ugly really quickly.  I’m glad we have home-grown natural gas to rely upon — far less guilt.

invisible infrastructure

As I noted a couple of days ago, it appears that China’s bold, new infrastructure in the area around Beijing was not accompanied by basic stormwater management infrastructure.  Well, an article today interviewed some Chinese residents about that very thing.

Beijing remains peppered with sinkholes, including one collapsed pavement in its central business district over 100 square feet wide. Meanwhile, the developer of a water-damaged affordable-housing complex in the suburbs has been accused of cutting corners to boost profits.

Hm.  That sounds not good.  In fact, the article goes on to state that the local government cannot issue bonds for more expensive infrastructure, like storm drains and sewer lines, that don’t generate revenue.  Plus, government officials are intent upon building bold, beautiful infrastructure that all can see and appreciate — the “invisible” infrastructure that should ideally accompany and protect the “visible” stuff is not held in high regard.

I would say that this is a problem with modern society in general.  Do you have any sense of what infrastructure is necessary to provide you with clean drinking water, to dispose of your trash, to treat your wastewater, and to recycle your papers and plastics?  Or for that matter, what about the infrastructure necessary to provide your car with gasoline or to synthesize that soap or cleaning solution you like?  There’s a lot we don’t notice behind the scenes.  A lot of it gets taken care of by the private sector here, and the utilities do what they can in the public sector.  But China’s government hasn’t yet figured out this local scale public sector stuff, it seems.  After all, how many officials want sewer pipelines named after themselves?

the right stimulus

With a background in civil engineering, I’m partial to infrastructure.  I find bridges absolutely fascinating.  I also know that the US is far behind in funding necessary improvements to existing infrastructure, from bridges and highways to water and wastewater treatment.  The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our infrastructure a D, with water and wastewater treatment getting D minuses.  Yikes.  I’m holding out for a miracle of stimulus to bring our facilities up to par, but there’s a country we might look to for guidance: China (gulp).

China has been investing tons of money in infrastructure, from building a vast highway network in anticipation of cars to use it, to top-of-the-line subways and airports.  But they’re falling short of goals to deliver safe drinking water to all residents.  About one in five Chinese residents must boil his/her tap water before use, and that doesn’t include the safety issues from metals and organic chemicals in the water.  Some city planners have complained that water treatment facilities are too expensive.  Welcome to the first world, China, where we’re still trying to sort out that very issue…(see above ASCE grade and our lack of funding to address that grade).

A recent rainstorm killed 37 people due to flooding in Beijing, and it left some wondering whether key infrastructure has been neglected in the nation’s recent great leap of progress.  Homes collapsed, streets flooded, and power lines fell.

The city has seen tens of billions of dollars poured into its modernization, including iconic venues for the 2008 Olympics, the world’s second-largest airport, new subway lines and dazzling skyscrapers — all while basics like water drainage were apparently neglected.

Has China given us an example of a “bad” stimulus?  Or perhaps just a lesson in risk assessment and investment protection — in order to preserve those new buildings and roads and bridges long enough to truly pay off, basic water management infrastructure is a requirement, too.  I hope that the US will learn from this sad example.