Factories in China’s Pearl River Delta tick-tock around the clock, rapidly churning out gadgets from iPhones and Barbie dolls to forks and light bulbs, shipped off to village shops in Uganda and super Walmarts in America’s sprawling suburbs. But far from the global consumer’s view, manufacturing and rapid development are placing unrelenting pressure on China’s environment.
This pressure is perhaps most visible when it comes to the confrontation between energy demand and water supply. Twenty percent of water withdrawn in China goes to coal mining, processing, and power plants, which supply 70 percent of China’s electricity. These plants keep the lights on and the factories running. On the other side of the supply chain, factories spew pollutants – ranging from dyes used for skinny jeans to paints for toy train sets – into main waterways. The contaminated water is either treated – a process which carries significant energy costs – or, as is too often the case, leaches underground and ends up in irrigation systems, the lifeline of the nation’s food supply.
At the same time, China is undergoing the greatest human migration in modern history.
By 2025 an estimated 350 million people – more than the entire U.S. population today – will be added to China’s urban areas. Water and energy are required inputs for the steel and cement needed by these new and growing cities, as well as the acquired tastes of new urbanites, such as air conditioners and meat-intensive diets, further driving demand.
The implications of this water-energy “choke point” are far-reaching.