Saudi Arabia, rolling dunes, endless desert, little rain. Northern China. Verdant hills, green fields and this time of year, heavy snow. Yet there is less water available in northern China per head of population than in Saudi Arabia.
With a fifth of the world’s population, China has about 7 per cent of the planet’s fresh water.
Even the quality of what is available is poor. Tap water is undrinkable without being filtered heavily. Industrial waste and the flow of pesticides from fields contribute massively to pollution. At least 10, 000 petrochemical plants dot the banks of the Yangtze River. China has about 88,000 reservoirs but at least 40 percent are in a poor condition.
Things are not much cleaner above ground. Massive strides have been taken too combat air pollution in northern China but it is still a cause for concern. The first two weeks of January have seen more polluted days, where levels of particulate matter 2.5 (often referred to as PM 2.5, because their diameter is 2.5 microns), exceed World Health Organization guidelines, than clear ones. Correct, enough of the science. But PM2.5 levels are a main topic of conversation in Beijing. It is not uncommon for conversations in shops or the train queues to mention PM2.5 levels.
Some context. There are about 25,000 microns in an inch. In other words, they are small, about several thousand could fit on this full stop. They embed themselves in lungs causing a range of lingering respiratory problems that…