China's water crisis is nothing new, but it's gotten worse - and is now on the 'brink of catastrophe' and could trigger a global catastrophe, according to Foreign Affairs.

Given the country’s overriding importance to the global economy, potential water-driven disruptions beginning in China would rapidly reverberate through food, energy, and materials markets around the world and create economic and political turbulence for years to come. -Foreign Affairs

For starters, there's no substitute for water - which is essential for food production, electricity generation and sustaining all life on earth.

In China, which consumes ten billion barrels of water per day (approximately 700x its daily oil consumption), decades of economic and population growth have pushed northern China's water system to unsustainable levels.

According to the report, the per-capita water supply around the North China Plain at the end of 2020 was nearly 50% below the UN's definition of acute water scarcity at 253 cubic meters. Other major cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, are at similar (or lower) levels. 

For comparison, Egypt had per-capita freshwater resources of 570 cubic meters, and has nowhere near as large of a manufacturing base as China.

Not fit for human consumption

Also worrisome, is that 19% of China's surface water is not fit for human consumption according to China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment. Roughly 7% was deemed unfit for any use at all.

Groundwater was worse - with around 30% considered unfit for consumption, and 16% unfit for any use.

In order to utilize this water, Beijing will need to make major investments in treatment infrastructure, which will require a significant increase in electricity usage in order to power the equipment.

Working against progress is China's farming and industrial industries, which dump contaminants into the country's groundwater - potentially setting the stage for decades of additional impairments.

Data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization indicate that China uses nearly two and a half times as much fertilizer and four times as much pesticide as the United States does despite having 25 percent less arable land.

For decades, Beijing has generally chosen to conceal the full extent of China’s environmental problems to limit potential public backlash and to avoid questions about the competence and capacity of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This lack of transparency suggests that an escalation to acute water distress could be far closer than most outside observers realize—increasing the chances that the world will be ill prepared for such a calamity. -Foreign Affairs

The core problem is the overpumping of aquifers under the Northern China Plain - which according to NASA GRACE satellites, are more overdrawn than those of the Ogallala Aquifer under the Great Plains in the US - which is one of the world's most imperiled sources of agricultural water.

In some instances, groundwater levels have gotten so low that underground aquifers have collapsed - triggering a phenomenon called Land Subsidence, which can cause the ground to cave in over large areas, which in some case renders the aquifer unusable in the future.

In 2003, Beijing launched a $60 billion "South-to-North Water Transfer Project" to use waters from the Yangtze River to replenish the north.

Meanwhile, China has deployed cloud seeding technologies to lace the clouds with silver iodide or liquid nitrogen in order to stimulate rainfall. It's also relocated heavy industries away from dry regions.

In April 2022, Vice Minister of Water Resources Wei Shanzhong estimated that China could end up spending $100 billion annually on water-related projects.

It might not be enough, however.