In China Every Square Meter Counts

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XINXIANG — The fields of Henan Province, one of the important centers of global wheat production, spread beyond this city’s high-rises, a prairie of dusky grain in every direction to the horizon. Every meter, every mu, a Chinese measurement of land expanse — 15 mu fit into an acre — is taken with ripening wheat.

The harvest has begun. Workers cut stalks with long blades and haul the wheat out of the fields on their backs. Farmers spread the straw and seed heads on the broad boulevards, just built and reach far from the city. They rely on trucks and cars to roll over the piles, the streets serving as long linear threshing tables. Then, with pitchforks, men and women stab hard at the crumbled piles and toss the grain high in the air, the wind carrying the bits of straw away from the seeds. The streets at this time of year are an inch deep in drying wheat the color of a dull yellow sun.

China confounds this visitor from the West. Service in restaurants in Chengdu is distinguished by such indifference to detail that the only prompt response comes with a request for the check. Checking in and out of a hotel in Gansu Province takes 25 minutes. It grinds up so much time you have to build the checkout into your travel schedule. Taxi drivers in Beijing are surly and difficult, like mood-swinging teens. Flagging a taxi in China’s capitol reminds me of the hit and miss uncertainty of junior-high dating.

Yet China’s stunning airports are so well dsigned that even with the crowds, moving from the dropoff curb to the gate — through seat assignment, bag check, and security — took 12 minutes this morning in Zhengzhou. The high-speed train from Beijing to Xin Xiang, a 660-kilometer trip, cost $25, took five hours at a top speed of 155 kilometers per hour, or nearly 100 mph. Almost every seat on the 15-car, 1,500-passenger train was taken. Bathrooms were clean, even near the last stop. In the United States we have a political party that views high-speed trains in the same dimension as gay marriage — an aberration in the human condition.

And here in Henan, farmers work so hard and efficiently at raising enough grain for a nation whose appetitie for noodles and rice steadily grows larger that every available square meter is planted, even the space between the headstones in a graveyard. (See pix below)

The average Henan farm, according to experts I talked to at the Institute of Agriculture here, measures about one mu. That makes western style mechanization with big tractors, big planters, big harvesters impractical. But China also hasn’t experienced the rural depopulation that drove farm families and workers from the American countryside from 1960 to 1985, and essentially drowned one stoplight towns in a sea of business bankruptcies and empty storefronts.

There are no such empty spaces in rural China. Men and women scrub the fields clean of weeds by hand. They toss wheat to the wind by hand. They pull vegetables from the fields, stack greens and tomatoes and corn and squash in the back of three-wheeled electric carts. With their pre-school children standing beside on the seats beside them, they transport the harvest at dawn to big street markets that by 6:00 a.m. are jammed with buyers. The outdoor markets hum with the same high-amp crowd noise that accompanies high school football games in the United States.

I am here for three weeks to study how the Chinese economy can sustain the high growth rates that have marked its rise to global prominence in the last two decades. Demand for energy and food confronts this nation’s declining reserves of fresh water. The choke point, which we reported on last year for Circle of Blue, is tightest in Henan and provinces north and west of here.

China’s central government asserts that the nation, already the world’s largest grain producer and energy consumer, can solve its water supply dilemma and simultaneously grow with the immense speed and scale that Chinese citizens and world markets have grown used to.

How to execute that trick is very much a subject of serious consideration and research in Beijing and provincial governments. The U.S. economy, as we’ll see in future posts from here in ModeShift, depends on China’s succeeding to an extent that most Americans will find revealing.

I like China’s chances. All that grain, tossed to the sky, little brown clouds that for a brief moment look like a swarm of bees scattering from a broken hive, are evidence of a determined and hard-working people that know what it takes to thrive.

— Keith Schneider

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Choke Point: China

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Circle of Blue, the Traverse City-based global news and science organization, where I serve as senior editor, last week opened a compelling new series on the commanding threat to China’s modernization posed by water scarcity. Choke Point: China is the product of more than a month of reporting by four teams of writers and photographers that spent most of December 2010 in China. The first article prompted a nice flurry of good responses including a message from the American Embassy in Beijing, which is reprinting the series in its weekly commerce newsletter, and from the British Embassy, where diplomats are said to be eager to see the next article. That’s me in pix above with Xiangkun Ren, who oversees the coal-to-liquids program for Shenhua Group, the largest coal company in the world.

By any measure, conventional and otherwise, China’s tireless advance to international economic prominence has been nothing less than astonishing.

Over the last decade alone, 70 million new jobs emerged from an economy that this year, according to the World Bank and other authorities, generated the world’s largest markets for cars, steel, cement, glass, housing, energy, power plants, wind turbines, solar panels, highways, high-speed rail systems, airports, and other basic supplies and civic equipment to support a modern economy.

Yet underlying China’s new standing in the world, like a tectonic fault line, is an increasingly fierce competition between energy and water that threatens to upend China’s progress. Simply put, according to Chinese authorities and government reports, China’s demand for energy, particularly for coal, is outpacing its freshwater supply.

Students of Chinese history and geography, of course, understand that tight supplies of fresh water are nothing new in a nation where 80 percent of the rainfall and snowmelt occurs in the south, while just 20 percent of the moisture occurs in the mostly desert regions of the north and west. What’s new is that China’s surging economic growth is prompting the expanding industrial sector, which consumes 70 percent of the nation’s energy, to call on the government to tap new energy supplies, particularly the enormous reserves of coal in the dry north.

The problem, say scholars and government officials, is that there is not enough water to mine, process, and consume those reserves, and still develop the modern cities and manufacturing centers that China envisions for the region. “Water shortage is the most important challenge to China right now, the biggest problem for future growth,” said Wang Yahua, deputy director of the Center for China Study at Tsinghua University in Beijing.  “It’s a puzzle that the country has to solve.”

See the rest of the first piece here. Next up tomorrow morning is a report on China’s clean energy development, an impressive display of technology and national goal-setting, but not nearly as big a water saver as you might think.

— Keith Schneider

Memo to Hu and Obama: Water and Energy Choke Points Merit Time at the China-U.S. Summit

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Washington’s foreign policy community is all aflutter anticipating the meaning and outcome of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s three-day summit with U.S. President Barack Obama, which starts today. But while the two heads of state focus on resolving what pries them apart, both nations share a dangerous confrontation within their borders over energy demand and water supply—offering a matchless opportunity for new kinds of cooperation on policy, technology, business, and trade.

The collision between rising energy demand and declining freshwater reserves, unfortunately, is not on the summit agenda this week. It’s only a matter of time before it is. Large expanses of both countries are being buffeted by new dimensions of water scarcity that impede development and economic opportunities.

There is powerful evidence that China’s dry and energy-rich northern and western provinces, for instance, do not have enough water to both build the modern manufacturing cities that Chinese authorities envision and develop the nation’s immense reserves of coal and natural gas.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., water scarcity is pitting energy developers against ranchers and farmers on the northern Great Plains, now emerging as the largest domestic oil production zone outside of the deepwater rigs off the Gulf Coast. Diminishing water reserves are putting the well-being of major American cities—Phoenix, Denver, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Atlanta, and others—at risk.

In contending with energy demand and water supply trends that are moving in opposite directions, the United States has the opportunity to share its energy efficiency and production technology with China, which, in turn, can offer the U.S. proven water conservation policies and practices.

Choke Points Shared By Both Countries

During the last seven months, Circle of Blue dispatched reporting and science teams to 18 American states and 15 Chinese provinces, producing Choke Point: U.S. and the upcoming sister project, Choke Point: China, which starts online publication on February 15. The purpose: to understand how both countries are contending with the tightening choke points between energy demand and water scarcity.

The major finding of Choke Point: U.S. is that the fossil fuel industry is busy replacing conventional supplies of petroleum and natural gas, produced from underground reservoirs, with “unconventional” fuel reserves, produced from deep shales and tar sands. In essence, much of America’s new supplies of diesel fuel, gasoline, and natural gas are generated from operations that resemble mining as much as they do ordinary drilling.

For the first time in a generation, U.S. oil production is steadily climbing. The new reserves, though, require much more water and generate more climate-changing carbon emissions than conventional oil and gas production. They also occur in some of the nation’s driest regions—Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. Confrontations between agriculture, municipalities, state governments, and the oil industry are occurring and are sure to get worse.

The second major finding of Choke Point: U.S. is that, with the exception of energy generated from wind and from solar photovoltaic panels, almost every new “cleaner” energy alternative—including nuclear energy—requires more water for production and cooling than the conventional coal- and natural gas-powered energy sources they are meant to replace. The worst energy-water mismatch is in the production of biofuels, which were once seen as a promising replacement for petroleum-based fuels. Generating one gallon of fuel from irrigated corn, for instance, takes 650 gallons of water. Generating one gallon of gas from oil takes one gallon of water. Solar thermal power that is conventionally cooled consumes more water than a coal-fired or a nuclear-powered plant.

The U.S. Department of Energy has forecast the need to increase energy production 40 percent by mid-century. But unless there are significant changes in approach, meeting the demand for 40 percent more energy will come at an extraordinary price to the nation’s air, water, land, and quality of life. Rising energy demand and diminishing freshwater reserves are two trends in dramatic collision across the country. Moreover, the speed and force of the collision is occurring in the places where growth is highest and water resources are under the most stress: California, the Southwest, the Rocky Mountain West and the Southeast.

A Confrontation That Grows More Dire
Energy-water stress points of the same magnitude also are occurring in China. China’s rising energy demand, the fastest in the world, is colliding with its rapidly declining supply of fresh water. China, among the world’s driest countries, has roughly 163 trillion gallons of water available for all uses, according to a study released in December 2009 by McKinsey’s 2030 Water Resources Group. About 63 percent is used by farmers, down from 85 percent in 1980, according to China’s Water Ministry. Municipal and domestic use has been stable at around 12 percent, and industry uses 23 percent; 80 percent of that to operate and cool China’s 10,000 coal-burning generating units in 550 power plants.

But by 2030, according to the McKinsey study, the demand for water in China’s rapidly growing economy will reach 215 trillion gallons, 52 trillion gallons more than is currently available. The increase in coal production and consumption is projected to account for most of the increase. The amount of water consumed by China’s energy sector will reach 70 trillion gallons, or 32 percent, while agriculture’s share will fall to 51 percent, according to McKinsey.

The China Water Ministry described the situation in a report earlier this year: “Rising water consumption associated with socio-economic development increasingly strains China’s freshwater ecosystems, challenging traditional water resource management.” In effect, the most critical economical and environmental question in China today is whether there is enough water for the nation to continue its stunning modernization.

Answering that question, of course, has stunning ramifications for the United States and every other nation that has business and diplomatic commerce with China. Both nations have proven knowledge that is readily available to loosen the tightening energy-water choke points. Now would be a good time to put it on the negotiating table.

Keith Schneider is senior editor for Circle of Blue, where this article first appeared. Reach him at keith@circleofblue.org.


Obama, His Shorthand, Energy, and the Frustration of Self-Interest

SAN FRANCISCO — A couple of people I know out here in the Bay Area attended one of the San Francisco fundraisers more than a week ago, during which Barack Obama talked about white working class Americans in Pennsylvania and the Midwest who “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”

The comment attracted no attention at all among the liberal, well-heeled Democratic donors gathered in the  handsome homes near the Pacific where Senator Obama posed for pictures with guests. The reason is that Senator Obama, taking a page from the Republican handbook, was speaking in shorthand. Guns, religion, and “antipathy,” an Ivy League word meant to describe racial fear and prejudice, form the contours of a certain kind of voter that utterly baffles wealthy liberals. A voter that puts his or her economic interests second to moral, social, and cultural interests.

San Francisco and its suburbs, after all, are a great showcase of the value of public interest idealism and investment. Decisions to tear down an urban freeway and replace it with modern rapid transit have helped spur billions of dollars in new housing and business construction. The great universities here, funded all or in part with public money, produce an astonishing assortment of well-educated and qualified job applicants. The digital revolution continues apace. Environmental protections and land use policies have cleaned the air and water and surrounded the region with a green belt of mountains, forests, and scenic open spaces. Salaries are high. Housing is higher. Opportunity is everywhere.  People embrace the notion that government has a role to play in ensuring prosperity.

Senator Obama talked a lot in San Francisco about his economic plan and especially the energy strategy he’s fashioned with the help of the Apollo Alliance, where I now work. It calls for 25 percent of U.S. electricity to come from renewable sources by 2025, and for 30 percent of the federal government’s electricity to come from renewables by 2020. He also proposed investing $150 billion over 10 years in renewable energy and biofuels, efficiency, and developing technology to burn coal more efficiently and with far less carbon pollution.

It’s an economic development strategy that will produce millions of new green-collar jobs to replace those high-paying manufacturing jobs lost in Pennsylvania and the Midwest.

But there are all these other voters in California and elsewhere, people not nearly as well-off, many who’ve been displaced, who aren’t listening. They’ve allied themselves with the wealthy to form a Republican governing coalition that has ruled America since 1980. And though they support certain liberal ideas — mass transit, open space conservation, clean air and water, Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment compensation come quickly to mind — most would never vote for a Democrat, regardless of whether his economic and energy strategy made sense.

Some of my friends and most of my wife’s family from northern Michigan fall into this camp. They’re lovely people. The ideas and candidates they support for state and national office just don’t make much sense to me.

It’s those voters that Senator Obama characterized as “bitter” and clinging. I’m not sure he used the right words. “Resigned” is how I’d put it. Regardless, though, neither he nor Senator Hilary Clinton are likely to get more than a smattering of their votes. It’s not that he’s African American or she’s a woman. It’s that they’re Democrats and those bitter, clinging, resigned white working class voters don’t cast their ballots for the  Donkey party.