There has been much doom and gloom recently in the media about water supplies in Brazil. Sao Paolo, Brazil’s economic hub, is running out of water according to recent government announcements. Reservoirs have run dry, ground water is receding, pipes leak scarce water away, and residents and businesses face de facto rationing. Social order could be stressed.

This made me wonder – how close are we to this happening in northern China, especially in and around Beijing? And how well prepared is government to mitigate the situation if it did?

It’s more than a decade since water intensive industries were banned from setting up operations around Beijing. And Beijing uses 20% less water today than in 1980 despite significant population growth. Yet even with that reduction, we saw unauthorized drilling of private wells not just in the countryside but in central Beijing last year by individuals desperate for supply.

We can’t blame industry as they use less than 20% of water consumed, with the heaviest consumers shut down over the last decade. Industrial water consumption is down 40%. Farmers have switched from rice to corn to use less water. Today, 30% less farmland is irrigated.

Certainly central government has invested heavily to avoid such scarcity, with the South-North water diversion project, costing more than $60 billion, coming online now to supply a billion cubic meters to Beijing annually. Almost 100% of waste water is recycled in Beijing through new processing facilities.

Water prices have been pushed up significantly. And still the water table around Beijing continues to fall – more than 10 meters since 2000. We are not at an equilibrium point yet. Some estimates put consumption still more than 50% above sustainable supply.

We have always kept a “back up” supply of 50-60 liters of bottled water in our apartment. I don’t think we’ll be eliminating that.

Read more of my views on my blog, Gordon’s View. And please follow me on Twitter.

Image credit: Black Dragon Pool, Lijiang China, strudelt / Flickr