One way to reduce consumption, she said, will be to keep raising water prices, a step China has been taking since 2009.
Tan believes the solution lies in targeting industry and agriculture, the "largest users and polluters." They use about 85% of the water in China, she said, and should face higher disincentives and harsher punishments.
Ma Jun, who runs the non-profit Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, seeks pollution control, especially of water resources, by blacklisting notorious violators.
Ma, one of China's most tenacious "green warriors," has made some headway but said environmental litigation is nearly impossible because enforcement of existing environmental laws is weak.
"We need to bring in more stakeholders and apply public pressure, like putting these companies on a list of polluters," he said.
Pressure, shaming and wish to make amends, he said, is changing behavior. "So far we have some 720 companies on our list coming to our NGOs to figure out what they did wrong and how they can fix their problems."
Ordinary Chinese consumers need to change consumption habits, too, experts said, just like those in developed countries.
"America can't be America anymore," explained Durnin of The Nature Conservancy. "The rest of the world can't be like the developed world. We can't keep saying that we want everyone to rise up to the same standard because that is an unsustainable standard."
Durnin proposed a simple step for China and other countries to take: fix leaky pipes.
"There's a lot of waste in urban environments, in the transfer of water in the pipes. There's literally hundreds of millions of miles of pipe laid around the world that are leaking and wasting water. These are some simple fixes that we could do right away."