Beijing Water

Beijing urged to get moving on water conservation

Kelly Haggart

January 17, 2003

Beijingers have been warned against regarding the south-north water-transfer scheme as an excuse to waste more water, while continuing to neglect water-saving strategies.

Just days after the formal start of the project to move river water from the south to China’s parched capital in the north, People’s Daily questioned whether the massive engineering scheme really can solve Beijing’s water crisis. The official newspaper warned city officials and residents against regarding the multibillion-dollar scheme as an excuse to waste more water, while continuing to neglect water-saving strategies.

When the south-north water-transfer project was launched on Dec. 27, residents of the capital became excited about the prospect of tasting the “clean, sweet water” from the south by 2010, and perhaps as early as 2008, in time for the Beijing Olympics, People’s Daily said in the Jan. 7 article.

“However, it appears that Beijing residents don’t realize that the water diverted from the south is not so abundant that they don’t need to save water at all,” the newspaper said. “This raises a major question: Without conservation, how long can Beijing use the water transferred from the Yangtze?”

The water-transfer scheme – projected to cost US$59 billion, twice as much as the Three Gorges dam – involves construction of three canals across the eastern, middle and western parts of China that would draw on Yangtze tributaries and other rivers to bring 45 billion cubic metres of water to the north every year.

Beijing’s water-management policies have long exasperated Dai Qing, a journalist and outspoken critic of the Three Gorges dam.

“The government is using the 2008 Beijing Olympics as an excuse to push ahead with the scheme to transfer water north,” Ms. Dai said. “People living along the route of the project need water too, but they’ll just have to watch it go straight to the capital because Beijing is going to run dry by 2010.

“I think the project will share the fate of so many dams in China, and have to be torn up in the end,” she said.

There would be no need to move water at all if conservation was taken seriously, Ms. Dai said. “Water is too cheap; we need to raise the price to make people more careful about using it.

“And I’m totally against luxury uses of water. In the run-up to the Olympics, Beijing officials are continuing to build things such as fountains and swimming pools and water-guzzling golf courses. Even the grass grown to impress the Olympic committee was a shui laohu [water tiger]. Also, given that 80 per cent of Beijing’s water is consumed by agriculture, we need to introduce techniques such as the drip irrigation used in Israel.

“Move the capital before you move water,” she said.

The Beijing Water Conservation Bureau predicts the capital will suffer an annual water shortage of 794 million cubic metres by 2005, with that deficit more than doubling to 1.6 million cubic metres by 2010. The amount of water available per capita in the city (300 cubic metres) is one-eighth of the national average, and just 1/32 of the global average.

People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao) described Beijing’s poor performance in several aspects of water conservation, beginning with dramatic levels of wastage caused by drips and leaks. “In one month, a tap that doesn’t close tightly will leak one to six cubic metres of water, while a leaky toilet will waste three to 25 cubic metres. A study has shown that if water-saving products were used in China’s cities, as much as 490 million cubic metres of water could be saved nationwide.”

However, few Beijing residents are interested in the water-saving appliances that are coming on stream, such as washing machines and showers, the newspaper said. It quoted Chen Lintao, vice-director of the Beijing Water Conservation Bureau, as saying consumers have encountered problems with the quality and installation of the new appliances.

The newspaper said Beijing municipality has failed to vigorously enforce its own water-recycling regulations introduced in the past 15 years, even though treated wastewater is widely accepted internationally as a source of water for flushing toilets, watering grass, and washing roads and cars.

New hotels and hostels in the capital have been required since 1987 to include wastewater-recycling systems. The regulation was extended in 2001 to cover all large residential complexes with an area of at least 50,000 square metres. But real-estate developers are reluctant to pay the costs of such systems, and even when these have been built, sometimes they are never put into operation, the newspaper said.

“Meeting the demand for water in Beijing really is a major challenge,” People’s Daily said, noting that water conservation is an unavoidable choice for a city that is home to 10 million people and as many as three million others in the so-called “floating population.”

“Beijing has introduced more than 26 water-conservation measures, saving as much as 437 million cubic metres of water since 2000. But this is not enough,” the newspaper said, and cited water pricing as another urgent issue. Despite several price hikes in the past few years, water still costs too little at 30 cents a cubic metre, the newspaper said.

“The water-transfer project could make matters worse, with more and more fresh water pouring in from the mighty Yangtze on completion of the project,” People’s Daily warned.

“Pricing water reasonably is obviously very important, but the really vital issue should be raising awareness about water conservation among people in the nation’s capital.”


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