Children of China: Are they the key to solving China’s devastating water shortage issue?

In the Tongzhou Number Six School in Beijing, about a hundred middle school students aged between 12 to 15 are sitting in a lecture about water. The visiting teacher says that they should drink less coffee and more tea, eat less meat, buy fewer clothes, and take shorter showers, among a multitude of other things, to help assuage China’s staggering water scarcity issues. The pupils enthusiastically lap it up. 15-year-old Kuiru Zhou, said during his interview with The Guardian, “I wasn’t aware that there are so many ways to waste water.” He’ll gladly shorten his time in the shower, but “eating less meat might be more difficult.”

This batch of students are the latest to receive the lecture from Thirst, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that educates China’s youth, ranging from 12 to 24 in age, on the nation’s water issues. The NGO stated that since 2013, it has presented its message to an estimated 500,000 students, for the most part in and around Beijing, Chongqing, and Shanghai. It hope to reach the targeted 1 million mark by the end of 2017.

Children in China sit in on a lecture on water scarcity and how to help conserve it. Photo credit: Aurélian Foucault

Although the country is home to 21 per cent of the world’s population – 1.35 billion – China only has access to a mere seven per cent of the global freshwater supply, the United Nations (UN) reported. Water scarcity is more prevalent in the north than in the south, and in 2015, it was calculated that only 100m³ of water was accessible to each person in Beijing annually. By UN standards, a region is considered “water stressed” if the number falls below 1,700m³.

One large contributor is the country’s speedy economic growth and urbanisation, driven by heavy industry utilising water for production. The colossal problems with pollution are another factor – around 60 per cent of the nation’s underground water is contaminated. On top of everything else, the “virtual water exports”, goods that need a large amount of water to produce or cultivate, are transported from regions experiencing water scarcity to those with more water.

The situation spurred Xi Jinping, President of China to make a statement in 2011, which now decorates Thirst’s promotional literature, “Water conservation is the fundamental way to solve our water problems. Education of citizens about China’s water crisis combined with strong environmental governance is conducive to a society focussed on water conservation.”

Thirst urges Chinese youths to lower their water usage, as well as to keep water scarcity and conservation a priority as they grow up and find their places in the world.

“Because of the one-child policy [that was abolished in 2015, but still in force when the students Thirst targets were born] it’s a unique culture,” Thirst founder Mina Guli said. “Young people have a great ability to influence their parents and companies, because all the companies are now looking to China. It’s a unique group of people.”

Children are more influential than people think. Photo credit: Aurélian Foucault

The essences of Thirst’s messages are the concepts of “water footprint” and “virtual water”. The latter is the amount of water that goes into the production of something, further than the actual amount of water it may hold. For instance, Thirst claims that 15,400 litres of water goes into the production of one kilogram of edible beef.

A “water footprint” is an individual’s total water consumption when their “virtual water” is added to their direct water use in showering and drinking.

Students are taught that buying fewer cotton clothes reduces their total “water footprint”; each cotton T-shirt allegedly consumes 3,690 litres of water during the production process.

Professor in climate change economics at the University of East Anglia, Dabo Guan, said that it is vital that these issues are delineated for the public. “Ten years ago, nobody talked about air pollution,” he explained. “But then people started to talk about it and they recognise it: they see the smog. But it’s rare to see water pollution or the drying of a river. People just aren’t exposed to it.”

However, despite the largely enthusiastic response to Thirst’s message, the nation’s water scarcity problems wouldn’t be solved, China Water Risk – an NGO working to raise awareness regarding water resource issues – reported. Not even if every single person in China never wasted so much as a drop of drinking water and showered in 20 seconds. That’s because in 2015, a mere 13 per cent of water used in the nation could be traced back to personal consumption.

“While it’s important to have public outreach, the majority of water use is in agriculture and industry,” Director of China Water Risk, Debra Tan, said. “If you’re really going to make any difference, these sectors must move [to lower water consumption]. It’s down to corporate responsibility and the government.”

That’s not to say the government has not moved to address the problems; a 1,000km pipeline stretching from Lake Baikal to the thirsty Northwest region of China*, and that’s only one example.

Despite all the steps taken, the water scarcity in the country is still “the most important environmental crisis in China,” according to Guan.

Though the major responsibility of making the necessary changes falls squarely on the shoulders of the government and industry, Thirst’s role is critical as well; they have the ability to give China a public relations (PR) boost on the world stage.

“There is a perception that China is a polluter, that China doesn’t care…But the reality is far from that,” Guli explained. “Young people do care about the environment. By talking about it we can create a whole consumer economy that values water sustainability.”

But some of the students at Beijing’s Tongzhou Number Six School are already proudly taking their places on the forefront of change. “Shorter showers could work,” Bailin Liu, one of the students, said. “And as for drinking less coffee than tea…I don’t actually drink either.”


Source: The Guardian