By Katy Yan, Former China Program Coordinator

Originally featured in World Rivers Review (June 2013)

More than half of the rivers previously thought to exist in China appear to be missing, according to China’s “First National Water Census Bulletin” published in March. Only 22,909 rivers were located by surveyors, compared with the more than 50,000 in the 1990s, according to a three-year study by the Ministry of Water Resources and the National Bureau of Statistics.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Huang He, China’s Deputy Director of the Ministry of Water Resources, blamed the discrepancy on ” inaccurate estimates in the past, as well as climate change and water and soil loss.” However, water experts point to China’s notorious over-exploitation of groundwater withdrawal for industry and agriculture and the rapid development of rivers as the more likely culprits.

While climate change is likely an important factor (this three-year study coincide with a multi-year drought in central and southern China, where dramatic drops in lake levels and a shrinking Yangtze River have been well-documented), US and Chinese experts agree that the problem is largely man-made.

Peter Gleick, a leading international water expert and president of the Pacific Institute, told The Atlantic, “Climate change is a real threat to the world’s resources, and we already see evidence of impacts on water availability, quality, and extreme events. But the water challenges in China are far greater than just climate change,” he said.

Ma Jun, a Chinese water expert at the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, told The Australian: “One of the major reasons is the over-exploitation of the underground water reserves, while environmental destruction is another reason, because desertification of forests has caused a rain shortage in the mountain areas.”

Some experts fear that the Yangtze River will run dry because dam developers are planning to build so many dams that their combined reservoir volume would exceed the Yangtze’s flow. (The situation is worse than an excessive amount of storage: reservoirs evaporate much more water than a natural river.) According to a study by Fan Xiao of the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau: “There would not be enough water for all of the dam projects proposed for the Yangtze to operate simultaneously, ultimately leaving power consumers, river users and the environment to pay the price of unchecked, unwise development.” This does not bode well for the massive South-North Water Transfer Project, which is meant to deliver water from the Yangtze River and its tributaries to northern China. One of the source reservoirs for this project – Danjiangkou – fell four meters below its minimum requirement for operation in 2011.

China’s plans to launch an additional 60 large dams between now and 2015 will increase tensions between upstream and downstream users during the dry season, and between the often conflicting objectives of providing energy, irrigation, and flood control. Without better planning, China may lose even more of its rivers and lakes by the next water census.