China vows to squeeze 60 percent more out of its water

BEIJING (Reuters) - China, faced with widespread water shortages exacerbated by its worst drought in decades, aims to cut the amount of water it uses to produce each dollar of national income by 60 percent by 2020, state media said.

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The target, unveiled by Water Resources Minister Chen Lei, underlines Beijing’s growing concern over chronic water shortages that it fears could undermine its ability to feed itself and crimp economic growth in the long run.

“We must take strict measures to preserve water resources in the face of the severe lack of water worsened by factors such as overuse, pollution and drought,” the official Xinhua news agency quoted Chen as telling a conference on Saturday.

Chen did not give details on how Beijing would improve efficiency, but he said the ministry would tighten management of water resources and take measures to reduce waste.

Specifically, the government plans by 2020 to reduce to 125 cubic meters (27,500 gallons) the amount of water used for each 10,000 yuan ($1,460) of gross domestic product, Chen said.

The water efficiency target follows similar ones announced earlier for cutting pollution and increasing energy efficiency, as Beijing seeks to get away from what it concedes is an unsustainably resource-intensive growth model, marked by an overreliance on heavy industry.

For instance, the government aims to reduce energy intensity -- the amount of fuel needed to generate each dollar of national income -- by 20 percent by 2010.

Xinhua cited official statistics as showing that China on average lacks 40 billion cubic meters of water each year, leaving over 200 million farmers short of drinking water and large swathes of farmland too dry to grow crops on.

A severe drought currently affecting large parts of the country has underscored the seriousness of the problem, creating acute drinking water shortages for nearly 5 million people, according to the Office of Flood Control and Drought Relief.

In one part of drought-hit Henan province, more than 3,000 villagers are currently forced to trek over two hours round-trip to fetch water, Xinhua said in a separate report on its website on Sunday.

Authorities are looking to massive water diversion projects to ease chronic shortages in Beijing and other parts of northern China, including a South-North Water Diversion Project.

Yet outright shortages of water are exacerbated by water pollution, which leaves many of its rivers unfit for irrigation.

Reporting by Jason Subler and Li Jiansheng; Editing by Tomasz Janowski