Scientists are sounding alarm bells over the growing and unsustainable demand on China's groundwater reserves with calls for a range of measures to protect the precious resource and avoid unacceptable impacts on food production.
Sinclair Knight Merz Principal Hydrogeologist, Dr Richard Evans, declares China's groundwater usage as one of the key water management issues in the world today.
"If you make a mistake with water management in countries like Australia or New Zealand the environment suffers, whereas in China people would die," Dr Evans said
Dr Evans is embarking on his third major study of water management in China as part of a World Bank groundwater management advisory team following the publication of his latest groundwater research in China in the internationally respected Hydrogeology Journal.
"The goal of achieving sustainable use and management of groundwater in China is a challenge that is being taken up by scientists around the world," Dr Evans said.
The large North China Plain in the country's relatively dry north-east, which includes the capital Beijing and has a total population in excess of 200 million, is the country's major centre for wheat and maize production and also an extremely important industrial region.
Throughout the world, irrigation efficiency is the main thrust in water management combined with the aim to use less water while raising productivity in agriculture and farming.
"Primary producers are constantly trying to produce more tonnes with increasingly less water applied," said Dr Evans.
"And, by using less water, you get the added benefit of causing less impact on the environment with less adverse impacts in terms of the salinisation, pollution and so on," he added.
"In Australia, most of our irrigation systems are surface water based and groundwater represents about 20 per cent of the total water usage.
“On the other hand, the North China Plain is one of the largest and most intensive agricultural area in the world with about 70 per cent of the water usage from groundwater and 30 per cent from surface water - the complete opposite of Australia."
While Australia has developed surface water resources and built dams, Dr Evans said that the Chinese have tended to go for the much cheaper option of developing groundwater.
Dr Evans acknowledges, however, that the Chinese have excessively developed the groundwater resources in the North China Plain.
This has led to falling groundwater levels due to overpumping and the development of groundwater management plans to return the groundwater pumping to a sustainable level where the amount pumped is equivalent to the recharge rate.
"China has the combined challenge of possessing both the greatest concentration of people in the world and is the most heavily developed from an agricultural point of view in the world," said Dr Evans.
"If they don't get it right, the impact on the Chinese economy could be serious, so there is a huge reason to improve the water management and bring the groundwater usage under control," Dr Evans added.
"There are many demand management focused options, but the most important is to improve irrigation efficiency."
Dr Evans said that the task of achieving groundwater resource sustainability to the North China Plain is a massive problem that will need to be carefully managed for at least the next 20 to 40 years.
The North China Plain covers an enormous area of approximately 60,000 square kilometres and will require a complete culture change in the way the Chinese people use water.
"This means fundamental changes to the demand for water," said Dr Evans.
"It is not just irrigation efficiency, it will also mean crop changes and a huge range of initiatives from engineering measures, management measures and agronomic measures,” he said.
"Although all of those things are in second order importance to the need to improve irrigation efficiency, there is an enormous amount of concerted effort required for the next 40 years," he concluded.