A Thirst For Growth: Fueling China’s Urban Expansion

The following post originally appeared on UMB’s Future Cities.

Imagine you’re a country attempting to move roughly 250 million people (just a bit less than the total U.S. urban population) into cities — some of which you haven’t even built yet — within just the next dozen years or so. This will bring your total urban population to approximately 900 million people, or roughly 13 percent of the world’s population. In less than ten years, you will have almost one quarter of the world’s 400 largest cities.

It’s the ultimate SimCity.

But, there’s a catch — you only have 7 percent of the world’s freshwater resources and in addition to supporting urban growth, you need to provide water for 400 million rural residents and meet the tremendous demands from agriculture, energy, and manufacturing sectors. What’s more, over 20 percent of your supply is so polluted that it can’t be used for industrial or agricultural use — much less for human consumption (a factor that, combined with air pollution, causes an estimated 6 percent reduction in your annual GDP, according to the World Bank).

If you haven’t guessed, you’re China. And this isn’t a simulation.

As recently reported in The New York Times (“China’s Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million Into Cities”), this seismic shift in population will have significant impacts on China’s urban infrastructure, with the national government expected to spend upwards of $600 billion a year on new roads, schools, and public infrastructure in cities.

As the country develops and invests in the systems that will enable and support urban growth, it would be wise to also invest in the natural systems on which cities depend—particularly their watersheds.

The traditional approach to meeting demand for water services is through construction of large-scale “grey” infrastructure, such as water and waste water treatment plants. This has led to overall global spending of more than $500 billion a year on water infrastructure — a figure that is projected to rise to $1 trillion by 2020. In fact, one of the world’s most costly capital projects is the $68 billion North to South Water Diversion Project, which will link China’s four main rivers via more than1,800 miles of pipeline, and divert water from the south of China to population centers in the north.

As our population and water demand increases, maintaining this traditional grey infrastructure approach will lock rapidly-growing countries like China into an unsustainable and unaffordable future. We will collapse under the cost, and nature will suffer fatal consequences.

There is another way. We must integrate natural infrastructure into our built environment and urban infrastructure. This includes protecting watersheds and floodplains that provide water security to the world’s urban populations. New York City, for example, is investing $1.5 billion over ten years to protect its watershed in the Catskills in order to avoid building an $8-10 billion water treatment plant, which would have annual operating costs of $300 million. The key learning here is that nature not only provides our freshwater, it also helps us efficiently and sustainably manage and protect it.

So, you’re China. To reach your vision of a thriving world-leading economy, unprecedented urban centers and a growing middle class, perhaps the most critical and fundamental piece you’ll have to ensure you get right is your water.

Adam Freed is the Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Global Securing Water Program and a Lecturer at Columbia University. He previously served as the Deputy Director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning & Sustainability

[Image: Bustling Beijing. Image Source: Stuck in Customs / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA]

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