Dealing with Chinese water shortage

24 June 2015

After successfully defending his PhD, Claus Davidsen can now look back at years of adventures, obstacles and hard work trying to remedy the water administration problems that comes with an increasing lack of natural water in China

Dried out and polluted rivers are the results of an increase in population and rapid economic growth in China. Natural water has become a limited resource, and there is not enough to sustain farmers, the industry and the people. That is why Claus Davidsen, who recently defended his PhD at DTU, has spent his PhD developing three economic models that can help Chinese decision-makers choose who gets how much water and how to compensate those who don't get enough.

During his time in China, Claus Davidsen has visited farmers, reservoirs, rivers and officials in his case area in the Hebei Province just south of Beijing, which has approximately 25 million inhabitants and is roughly the size of Denmark.

Immediately after his PhD defence we interviewed Claus about his research, living in China and much more.

What made you decide to do your PhD in China?

My girlfriend and I were considering buying a house, starting a family, getting stable jobs and settling down in Denmark. But we have always enjoyed travelling and became attracted to the idea of living in a foreign country. Fortunately the opportunity for me to do my PhD in China coincided with my girlfriend, Sidsel, getting the chance to study at Qinghua University in Beijing for six months, and the decision was made. We haven't regretted it since.

What is it like to work with environmental issues in China?

In Western media there is a negative prejudice that the Chinese only value economic growth and don't care about the environment. However, that is not the way I see it. Chinese politicians seem very brave at the moment and are coming up with ambitious proposals to help solve the issues. For instance the Chinese government has decided to spend one billion yuan every day for the next ten years to try to improve water quality and quantities.

What obstacles have you faced along the way?

The most trying part of my project was getting access to data, for instance how much water runs through a river in a month. The Chinese are very good at gathering data and keeping records, unfortunately though, foreigners are not allowed to see much of it. Much information is secret, and getting through to the right people often takes a long time. That has been very frustrating at times.

I have had to gather much of my data through networking, satellite photos and various websites. Ten years ago this project would never have been possible, and I guess I forgot to thank Google in my speech of thanks.

What have you learned from working in China?

I have obtained a nuanced understanding of the complex water problems that exist in China, and why it is difficult to solve them from a European perspective, and I have learned how to navigate in the Chinese water sector and how to collect data.

Even more importantly I have obtained a cultural understanding. If you compare the way I engage socially with Chinese now with the way I would do so before I started my PhD, there is a huge difference. Now I understand the way you meet, greet, talk, laugh and show respect to your Chinese contacts, and I do so in an elegant and natural way.

That is an essential skill if you want to get results in China, and a very valuable ability for a future employer.

How will your research be used?

I am a practitioner and would love for my work to be applied directly and have a positive effect on millions of people, but it is hard to say how much of it will be used. I consider my research a piece of a larger puzzle that can inspire others in which direction to go next. If the Chinese want to use my models, they can apply them to their data and get the results. The models can also be used on similar river systems in other parts of the world.

What comes next for you?

First of all I'm very happy that everything went as well as it did, and I am kind of sad that it is over. I am proud to have worked with something that is extremely relevant at the present time, which was also pointed out to me at the defence, and it is nice to know that others recognize my efforts and think that my project has great potential.

I started out not knowing anything about China, and have now become one of the people in Denmark who knows the most about water administration in China. I would love to put that knowledge to use, and benefit Denmark and China by starting up some projects in China. I would be very motivated by the opportunity to design models or systems for a specific client, so that my work can be put directly to use.