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The Subsidence Crisis: China’s Battle Against Sinking Cities

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The Subsidence Crisis: Nearly Half of China’s Major Cities are Sinking — Some Rapidly

China, with its booming economy and rapid urbanization, is facing a lesser-known crisis that threatens its cities’ stability and infrastructure. Subsidence, the gradual sinking of the ground, is becoming a significant issue in the country, with nearly half of its major cities experiencing this phenomenon to varying degrees. This alarming trend poses serious challenges to urban planning, infrastructure development, and the well-being of millions of people.

Understanding Subsidence

Subsidence occurs when the ground beneath a city sinks, leading to a gradual lowering of the land’s surface. This sinking can be caused by various factors, including excessive groundwater extraction, poor construction practices, geological conditions, and the weight of urban infrastructure. In China, the primary cause of subsidence is the over-extraction of groundwater, which has been a common practice for decades.

As China’s population and economy have grown, so has the demand for water. To meet this demand, groundwater has been heavily exploited, leading to the depletion of underground aquifers. As a result, the ground above these aquifers collapses, causing the land to sink. This subsidence is particularly pronounced in cities where groundwater extraction has been excessive.

The Scale of the Problem

The scale of China’s subsidence crisis is staggering. Nearly half of the country’s major cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Wuhan, are experiencing varying degrees of sinking. In some areas, the land is sinking at an alarming rate of several centimeters per year. This rapid subsidence poses a significant threat to buildings, infrastructure, and the environment.

One of the most affected regions is the North China Plain, home to over 200 million people. This densely populated area, known as the country’s breadbasket, is experiencing severe subsidence due to excessive groundwater extraction for agriculture. The sinking land not only damages buildings and infrastructure but also increases the risk of flooding as rivers and canals lose their natural slopes.

The Consequences and Challenges

The subsidence crisis in China has far-reaching consequences. The sinking land damages buildings, roads, and other infrastructure, leading to structural instability and increased maintenance costs. It also disrupts underground utilities such as water and sewage pipes, causing leaks and contamination. Additionally, subsidence exacerbates the risk of flooding, as the natural drainage systems are compromised.

Addressing the subsidence crisis poses significant challenges for China. Firstly, reducing groundwater extraction is crucial to prevent further sinking. However, this requires finding alternative water sources and implementing sustainable water management practices. Additionally, retrofitting existing buildings and infrastructure to withstand subsidence is a complex and costly task. Urban planning and construction practices need to be revised to ensure new developments are resilient to sinking ground.

Furthermore, the social and economic impact of subsidence cannot be ignored. Displaced communities and damaged properties require relocation and compensation. The cost of mitigating subsidence and its consequences runs into billions of dollars, putting a strain on local and national budgets.

The Way Forward

Tackling the subsidence crisis requires a multi-faceted approach. China needs to prioritize sustainable water management practices, including reducing groundwater extraction and promoting water conservation. Investing in alternative water sources such as desalination plants and wastewater recycling can help alleviate the pressure on underground aquifers.

Urban planning and construction regulations must be updated to consider the risks of subsidence. This includes implementing stricter guidelines for building on sinking land and retrofitting existing structures to withstand ground movement. Incorporating innovative engineering solutions, such as flexible foundations and deep soil stabilization techniques, can help mitigate the impact of subsidence on infrastructure.

Public awareness and education about the consequences of subsidence are also crucial. By understanding the causes and effects of subsidence, individuals and communities can contribute to sustainable water usage and support efforts to prevent further sinking.


The subsidence crisis in China is a pressing issue that demands immediate attention. With nearly half of its major cities sinking, the country faces significant challenges in ensuring the stability and resilience of its urban areas. By addressing the root causes of subsidence, implementing sustainable water management practices, and adopting resilient construction techniques, China can mitigate the impact of sinking land and safeguard the future of its cities.

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