The New York times had an terrific story by Edward Wong yesterday on China’s hare-brained scheme to water the northern half of the country by building three huge canals from the southern half—in spite of what seem like insuperable problems involving pollution, population displacement, and the small fact that the South, too, has long faced a water shortage. China is pursuing the plan anyway because, in Wong’s blunt words, “Northern China is dying,” through chronic drought and Yellow River pollution so severe that its water is no longer potable. Wong has another story today on how poorly-planned existing irrigation schemes in the South have already caused lakes to dry up and forced a whole city to ration running water to five hours a day.
This whole line of reporting seems neglected. We hear a lot about “pollution” in China, which gives an impression of huge but essentially survivable (and reversible) problems like air made dirty by coal dust. But if government incompetence leads fresh water to disappear for hundreds of millions, that’s a whole different order of problem. No water, no human life (and certainly no continued economic growth).
I blame geography. If you grow up in California (or the West and Southwest generally), you hear one cliché after another about how water is everything. California history is largely the history of water; our mythology, a set of stories about the serious business of
stealing acquiring water. When someone says “whiskey is for drinking” you’re primed to reply “water is for fighting over” (though Mark Twain may not have coined that). But if you live, as our cultural and political elites do, on the Eastern Seaboard, this is all abstract. From there, water no doubt seems to be by nature a minor, manageable problem. As a result, a long-brewing catastrophe seems new to them, and therefore to us.