China gets to grips with groundwater

The knowledge and technology that China requires to manage its groundwater more effectively is being provided by experts from the Dutch environmental consultancy and research organisation, TNO Environment and Geosciences. Jos de Sonneville, manager of business development - subsurface and water, at TNO, explains how experience gained in South Africa and elsewhere is being applied in China.

Groundwater is the main source for water supply in China. Nowhere is this truer than in the north of the country, where groundwater represents more than 52% of total water supply. In the North China plain, in the provinces of Hebei, Shandong, Henan, and Shanxi, groundwater accounts for 70% of the total water supply; this increases to more than 90% for the cities and industries of Beijing and Tianjing.

Inevitably, there are consequences of such high levels of exploitation. A serious depletion of groundwater reserves is taking place in the North China plain, especially in Taiyuan, Tianjin and Jinan cities.

The cone of the groundwater depression in the Hebei plain extends over an area of some 33,000km2 and the groundwater level drawdown in the centre of the cone has reached 82m.

Since 1972, the famous karstic water spring in Jinan City has stopped discharging during the dry season. Extensive land subsidence is occuring in Beijing, Taiyuan, Tianjin and Shanghai cities.

The cumulative maximum land subsidence amounts to 2.63m in Shanghai, 51cm in Beijing, 2.6m in Tianjin and 1.38m in Taiyuan. The coastal plains (Tianjin, Hebei and Shandong, and Shanghai) experience serious saltwater intrusion.

The groundwater has also been affected by pollution from industrial sources, domestic waste discharge and disposal and agricultural activities due to the rapid development of China’s economy in recent decades. Contaminants of nitrates and bacteria from domestic wastes and heavy metals from industrial pollution have been found in shallow aquifers.

Information needed

Present groundwater practices cannot be continued. Groundwater management can only be improved if enough good quality information is available to diagnose the problems and to develop proper measures to counteract the problems.

At present, groundwater information is either not available or not easily accessible. The Chinese Ministry of Land and Resources is responsible for land use and the sustainable management and use of natural resources.

With the aim of tackling the groundwater information gap, the Ministry set up the China Institute for Geo-Environmental Monitoring (CIGEM). Following a phase of worldwide orientation, the institute opted for the Regional Geohydrological Information System (REGIS) developed by TNO.

This prompted the Ministry to sign an agreement with TNO in 2002, to develop a Chinese version of REGIS for the mapping of the groundwater reserves and water use. For the required training and advanced monitoring equipment, TNO sought the collaboration of the UNESCO-IHE training institute and the Dutch company Van Essen Instruments B.V. The resulting project, officially named the Capacity Building of a China Groundwater Information System, started in March 2003.


REGIS is a comprehensive groundwater information system. All sorts of data on subjects such as the quality and the location of groundwater, its storage and the structure of the subsurface can be retrieved, analysed and visualised, together with administrative and management data. This makes REGIS an important resource in monitoring and establishing proper groundwater management.

The system was originally designed for the Dutch provinces, the authorities responsible for groundwater management in the Netherlands. Since then the system has been put to work in Germany, Switzerland, Moldova, Paraguay, South Africa and Syria gaining valuable experience in system application and adaptation.

REGIS-Africa already has a successful three-year trial period behind it. The project is now running in five South African provinces and in two years’ time it will be providing the whole country with information about water reserves and water management. The South Africans are especially enthusiastic about REGIS’s flexibility.

Jan Girman of the South African Ministry of Water Management and Forestry said, “REGIS-Africa is an exceptionally useful system and it works with modern technology. Another strong point in its favour is that the Dutch government is fully committed to it.”

REGIS combines an industry-standard Geo-Information System (GIS) and database within a number of modules. This makes the system easy to adapt to suit user-requirements and geohydrological conditions.

Using the experience of REGIS implementation in other countries, the system is presently being customised for the Chinese situation. Necessary adaptations concern the approach and presentation of hard rock geology and particular Chinese administrative and management requirements.


The first TNO and UNESCO-IHE groundwater experts are already working in China, together with 30 Chinese colleagues from the CIGEM main office in Beijing and the provincial stations. They are working in three pilot areas, in the provinces of Xinjiang, Shandong and Beijing.

TNO has made a start on the adaptation and installation of the REGIS system and on setting up three provincial Groundwater Information Centres. UNESCO-IHE is providing a training programme for the Chinese professionals and Van Essen is working with the Chinese field offices to set up the groundwater monitoring network.

This high-profile project will run for five years and is due for completion in 2007. If the project is successful, REGIS-China will be implemented across the whole of the North China plateau.

Until now the project has made considerable progress and has met with enthusiastic support. The cooperation and input of the Chinese participants has been impressive.

Monitoring plans have been developed and monitoring wells have been improved in the pilot areas. A number of wells were equipped with modern Van Essen Divers. Tremendous efforts have been put in the digitisation of analogue data to provide input for REGIS.

A number of courses on groundwater monitoring, groundwater modelling, database development, data analysis, data mining and GIS were given.

In November 2005 a seminar was held where the first results were presented, not only to the stakeholders of the three provinces but also to a wide audience of representatives of the other provinces in China. Great interest was shown in the approach being used.

Wenpeng Li, project director of CIGEM, anticipates success and has great expectations of the Dutch cooperation. His confidence is based in part on the experience with water management TNO built up in South Africa (see panel).

The combination of TNO and commercial companies guarantees that CIGEM will be effective. Moreover, the Netherlands has a good reputation worldwide when it comes to groundwater management.

In the coming years, monitoring and database management will become a daily routine. Once the groundwater models are developed and stable, a Decision Support System will be developed to get a grip on the particular problems facing the pilot areas and to generate groundwater management scenario’s leading to more sustainable groundwater management.

Geological Survey

TNO houses the Geological Survey of the Netherlands, the central Dutch geoscience organisation for information and research to promote the sustainable management and use of the subsurface and its natural resources. It does so by providing institutional and technical support to central and lower tiers of governments, other statutory organisations, public companies, consultants and private industry.

The survey provides institutional support for the management of natural resources. Since 1970, TNO has been involved in more than 160 advisory projects in more than 40 countries in Europe, Africa, South-east Asia, China and India, the Middle East and South America.

Contact: TNO

Tel: +31 30 2564421

Email: [email protected]


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