South-North Water Scarcity Engineering Projects in China

Photo by Pimm @FlickrCC – August 2010 – Beijing

China’s South-North Water Diversion Projects
One of the regions of the world which has a worrisome level of water scarcity is northern China, including its capital city of Beijing, a city with a population of over 21 million people.

The World Bank’s definition of a water scarce region is 35,300 cubic feet of fresh water per person, per year. Each Beijing resident has about 15 percent of that amount and eleven of China’s thirty-one provinces are dryer than this.

Northern China has only a fifth of the country’s fresh water but two-thirds of its farmland. Seventy percent of northern China’s water is used for agriculture to produce crops such as corn and wheat. Groundwater levels are plummeting because of un-tariffed extraction by farmers and urbanites and groundwater is also becoming contaminated. Thousands of rivers have disappeared in the region due to overuse for grain production, and for highly inefficient use in industry. Much of the river water that is left is too polluted even for industrial use. A 2009 report revealed that half of the water in seven main Chinese rivers was unfit for human consumption.

Northern China is arid and southern China is water-rich, so the Chinese government’s “fix” attempt has been throwing tens of billions of dollars towards water engineering projects to get water moved from south to north across the country.

The first of three phases, the Eastern Route, was completed last year. In that project, China’s 1,400 year old Grand Canal was expanded with concrete to move water from the Yangzi river basin towards the port city of Tianjin.

Phase Two Will Be Complete October 31, 2014
By the end of this month, phase two, the Middle Route Project, is to be completed. This large, expensive, decade-long project will move water from the Danjiangkou Dam in the central province of Hubei to Beijing. Somewhere between 300,000-500,000 Chinese people were displaced for the project. This project will supply about a third of Beijing’s water needs, and even more to Tianjin.

Map credit:

A third future project is even more controversial and challenging than the first two. A high altitude diversion from the headwaters of the Yangzi to the upper Yellow River would be moved across the Tibetan plateau. Some doubt that this could be done and worry about all of the unfortunate consequences from the project, such as ruining many hydropower plants.

Conclusion: Poor Policy and Questionable Food Security
Outsiders have been critical of China’s water policies for years, seeing all of these efforts as mere temporary fixes. They recommend that water needs to be priced appropriately to motivate conservation and wiser use. Some advocate that China should import grain rather than be obsessed with a national food security policy. Perhaps, in the future, they won’t have a choice in the matter.

Further reading:




Energy Expert Interview Series: Peak Oil

This posting is the first in what will be a series of Monday posts which are portions of an interview that I was privileged to do with Bill Reinert this past summer. Reinert has about the most wide-ranging knowledge and understanding of energy issues of anyone that I’ve ever come across. I also happen to think that he’s one of the most logical voices you’ll ever see on energy, transportation, fuels, and other important environmental issues. His views are firmly grounded in reality since his life’s work was spent trying to solve energy problems in the industrial world. Because of this, they can be rather unpopular with wishful-thinkers or Elon Musk worshiper-types.

The first part of the interview which covered car technology and fuels (including corn ethanol and more ideal octane boosters) was published over at Yale Environment 360 last week. I encourage you to read it.

Today’s question (below) is about the subject of “peak oil”, a critical issue for an energy engineer who was responsible for future car technology at Toyota.

But first, his bio…

Bill Reinert was national manager of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.’s advanced-technology group for the past 15 years prior to his retirement in 2013. In his 23 years with Toyota, he also traveled millions of miles for the company as a spokesperson. He was responsible for long-range product planning of all alternative-fueled Toyota vehicles. He co-led the U.S. product-planning team for the second-generation Prius, and, also worked on several advanced hybrid electric products, direct hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, and plug-in hybrid concepts. As an energy engineer, his career-long work in the area of renewable energies always centered around life-cycle analysis studies. A staunch environmentalist, he helped establish a global model for cleaner energy use in the Galapagos Islands in conjunction with the WWF. He has aerial-viewed the tar sands project in Canada and is concerned about water use in energy, believing that the clamor for energy security could eventually trump all environmental concerns worldwide. As a futurist, and a leading global expert on energy and transportation trends, he helped to found the annual “Meeting of the Minds” events which focus on future smart urban planning, transportation, and energy use, and at which he was an annual speaker from 2007 through 2012. He was in the Principal Voices Program with CNN, Fortune and Time, has testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality, the National Academy of Science, and he has chaired sub-groups of the National Petroleum Council’s Future Transportation Fuels and Vehicle Systems studies for the Department of Energy.

K.M.: Over the years, you have been a trusted expert on the subject of “peak oil”. But, then, two years ago you said, “Conceptually, peak oil is not an accurate description.” Could you expound on why the term “peak oil” doesn’t describe the current and future energy situation very well?

Reinert: The idea with peak oil is that there’s a finite amount of oil that’s extractable from the earth, and if you look strictly with blinders, that’s more or less true. Peak oil theorists tend to look at oil only from the supply side and consider demand will continue unabated. Therefore they always see a gap in the demand for oil and the amount of oil that can be extracted in the future. Other oil analysts only look at the demand side and assume that somehow supply will always increase to meet demand.

The truth is different. The price of oil is generally judged by the spare capacity. Any amount under two or three percent spare capacity results in big price rises.

We watched the price mechanism work in 2008, and the peak oil theorists really ought to take a look at that. They are going on the notion that oil is inelastic, that you have to use it, and if it’s not there then the price is going to shoot right up and you’ll have angry villagers in the street with pitchforks. This is not going to happen.

What happens is exactly what happened. The price went up, we had a recession, and we quit using oil as much. It was painful, but today we’re still using less oil and we’ve become more fuel efficient. So it’s a stair step ratcheting process and each time the prices get too high for the economy, then the demand for oil goes down.

I don’t really ever think you’re going to see a peak oil. I think that what happens is after time the cars become more efficient, society changes, and you move on.

May not be reprinted without permission.

Coming next Monday: Reinert will give us an overview of artificial photosynthesis.

UPDATE: Note to readers over at Whoever runs peak took this post from my site without permission though it is clearly stated here that is not allowed. I emailed’s contact address immediately and asked them to remove it – which they did not. I also left the 1st comment at under the reposting asking them to remove it. Their moderator has posted other comments there since, while ignoring mine. is an unethical site. They have done this a number of times to me in the past, as well. Sites like help give the internet a bad name, and help discourage those like myself who work very hard to get a post such as this accomplished.

The New Avant-Garde Markthal in Rotterdam

This month a cutting edge piece of prominent architecture has opened in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. A giant horseshoe arch which houses a food court market the size of a soccer field below, is made up of apartment dwellings with open air balconies above. The food market will be open seven days a week and there is a large amount of underground parking below.

For those who buy or rent the new apartments contained in the structure, they will have the ultimate opportunity to eat, shop, or work local with fantastic views of the city.

There will be 100 fresh produce units, 15 food shops, 8 restaurants, 228 apartments and 1,200 parking places included in this market hall concept.

The market is to sell “fresh and affordable fair products” arranged with bread and dairy in the hall’s center, fish and meat on one diagonal, and potatoes, vegetables, fruit and delicacies on the other diagonal. Four separate fresh produce units will be spread out across the floor for seasonal products or specials.

The arch is ten stories tall.

This fearless architecture food center is sure to become a huge tourist attraction in Rotterdam.

To learn more:

Craig Venter in Boulder

Craig Venter was in Boulder two nights ago, and I went to hear him speak. Twice he’s been named by TIME magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people and he’s someone that I’ve always paid attention to. I sat in the fifth row and was surprised to see that there were empty seats all around at this free talk.

In a wiki-nutshell, Venter is…

an American biochemist, geneticist, and entrepreneur. He is known for being one of the first to sequence the human genome and the first to transfect a cell with a synthetic genome.

Throughout Venter’s talk there was one theme in the way he views Nature’s code for life. He calls it software. He sees genetic code as the software which runs a system. Because computers have advanced so incredibly since his first human genome project was begun, it has become easy for geneticists today to study and use this living code.

Venter likes the Richard Feynman quote, “What I cannot create I do not understand.”

He is not afraid to say that by changing the DNA software, we can change the species, even though he admits that our biological knowledge, even as we try to design cells with computers, is very limited. He explained to us that our DNA is like a computer hard drive in that its code has gotten fragmented over many years of evolution, and they are trying to get the genes ordered by function.

One definitely got the impression that the science is ahead of the ethicists on this. I’m not sure how many people are aware of how far this technology has come. In his labs, they have already created a viable virus, a phage, and a living bacterium. He showed us a slide of a little black genome bot appliance box made by SGI. He assured us that each of these boxes has a large number of security features built in. Then he showed a theoretical future diagram where your own computer is connected to a box which you would be able to use to create your own dose of vaccine to protect yourself from the latest virulent virus. The syringe you’d need for the injection was shown laying next to the box.

He told us that last year’s new avian Chinese flu, the H7N9, looks to be a significant threat. He said that the Chinese put the code for it on the web very quickly after it was discovered, and that within a short period of time, Novartis in the U.S. had manufactured a vaccine for it that can protect every American. This was a process where real DNA became digital, and then the digital form became real DNA. (DNA>Digital>DNA) The question in my mind was what if another lab, instead, produced the virus from the Chinese-provided code, instead of the vaccine, and spread it around. Was our government motivated to act quickly to produce a vaccine to protect everyone because the Chinese had posted the H7N9 code on the internet?

The goal in synthetic biology experiments is always to try to make synthetic organisms that can’t survive outside of the lab, and there are ways of doing this.

In the past, there has been great difficulty and red tape due to various government regulations, in transferring biological materials across borders, but now, by publishing codes on the internet, or by sending them in an Email, this obstacle is no longer a problem for scientific researchers.

I won’t pretend that I understood everything he told us in the talk, nor do I understand all of the ethical issues. But, I do understand that this is huge. That our world going forward will be forever changed now that we have the code for life, now that we can create life.

In a New York Times Magazine article about Venter a few years ago, I found out that he enjoys racing motorcycles across the desert of California in his down time. Genes have been his life’s calling, that’s for sure, and he’s not afraid to go full throttle ahead, as he’s doing now at age 67. He’s working on human longevity, on creating organs for transplant that won’t require immunosuppression of the patient, on his ocean’s diversity sampling project, and on getting millions of human DNAs coded by 2020, so scientists can start figuring out where the differences that result in disease or advantages lie. His most recent book (2013) is titled, “Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life”.

His labs are currently in the process of hiring the best software people “on the planet” that they can lure away from companies such as Google. He informed us that in the future, “there will be more medical discoveries made by software engineers than by doctors.”

The company, 23andMe, is producing personal genome test kits for people, but questions raised by the FDA have stymied their goals somewhat.

He didn’t tell us about the bad that could come of any of this technology. What does he worry about, I wondered. What are the work-day lunch conversations about among his teams of scientists?

Venter recognizes the importance of the whole, including the supraorganisms that we are and recognizes that about 3 percent of our bodies are microbes which function together as a microbiome. Furthermore, metabolomics is the study of chemical processes which create metabolites in the body. After we eat a meal, as many as 500 different chemicals circulate in our bloodstream. Perhaps 50 percent of the chemicals in our brains are bacterial in origin.

In the end, he took audience questions. There weren’t all that many, so I got up and asked one. Not once did he mention his recent efforts and excitement about using algae for biodiesel. My impression was that he’d given up on the idea, but I wanted to hear it straight from him. I asked, “What amount of hopefulness do you have for algae cells ability to produce biodiesel for us in the future given the research that you have done?” He answered that for this to become economically viable, the current capacity of the algae cell to produce biodiesel would have to increase by at least an order of magnitude (which I took to mean 10 times). He said people have dreamed of doing this for a hundred years, but, that whenever you hear that someone is doing it successfully, the truth is that they are not. He told me that in one project today, the algae chromosome is being replaced entirely. He also blamed cheaper fuel today from fracking as a hindrance to motivation to do the research. He doesn’t expect any economically viable algae biodiesel to happen anytime soon.

This being Boulder, one person had the naivety to ask what he thought of GMOs for food production. Can you imagine asking Craig Venter what he thinks of using GMO technology to produce food? His answer wasn’t any different than any of the most basic and common answers you see in articles. He said the science isn’t scary or complicated, he mentioned golden rice, and he said we need the technology to feed people.

In another audience question, a father told him that his child has a very rare genetic disease and none with it live past the age of 30. Venter only offered that prevention through prenatal testing could be used, but also invited him to visit with him after the event.

Comments welcomed, especially from people who know the issues surrounding what Venter is doing better than I do.

Greenhouse Emissions from Agriculture

The recent United Nations Climate Summit put agriculture’s greenhouse emissions estimate at around 50 percent of global emissions when land use changes, deforestation, and food processing, packaging, and distribution are taken into account. Without those things, emissions from the agricultural production fields alone is estimated to be about 14 percent.

This above graphic breaks down the emissions which stem from the different categories involved in the global food production system contributing to climate change.

A United Nations Council on Trade and Development paper helps sort out the emissions numbers (below):

There are an enormous number of complexities involved in understanding agriculture’s role in greenhouse emissions. Each region and each farmer’s method varies widely, so we must attempt to make generalizations. Agriculture is the number one global land use-changer, water user, and destroyer of biodiversity.

An article in today’s WSJ contains one idea about how agriculture needs to change to reduce emissions:

Agronomist and coordinator at Grain, Henk Hobbelink, says the solution to reducing agriculture emissions lies in small farming and decentralized food systems.

“The more localized emissions of small farmers barely contribute to the overall agriculture emissions because they use very little chemical fertilizer, a main source of emissions, and produce more for local markets, so they don’t contribute as much to the transport emissions,” he said. Fresh foods also don’t create as much emissions from processing, freezing, packaging and storing in supermarkets.

The underlying factor driving all of this is population, of course. You cannot separate the issues of population from greenhouse emissions, although government policies (such as biofuels mandates) and our economic systems built upon growth (while ignoring environmental costs) also play large roles — as do our dietary choices.