Beijing Water

Where will Beijing get its drinking water?

Yi Yongyong – Science Times
August 2, 2007

An article by Science Times reporter Yi Yongyong based on a recent talk by Chinese environmentalist Wang Jian takes us through some of the water supply problems facing Beijing. Starting from the city’s pre-PRC history and moving through the half-century since, he brings us up to the present situation and speculates on the future. He focuses on two of the largest reservoirs that have until recently been among Beijing’s primary sources.

TGP Editor’s Note: The following is a condensed version of an article that appeared last month in the Chinese Academy of Sciences newspaper, Kexu Shibao (Science Times www.sciencetimes.com.cn) The article by Science Times reporter Yi Yongyong is based on a recent talk at a Beijing journalists’ salon by Wang Jian, a former member of the Guanting water conservation leadership group in northwest Beijing and the Beijing Environmental Protection Agency. Translation and editing by Three Gorges Probe.

The history of Beijing’s water

Before the advent of running water in Beijing, the city’s water supply came largely from wells—as many as 1,258 wells were at one time operational across the city.

Since 1949 and the PRC, Beijing has rapidly developed from a factory-free urban area to a typical industrial base with many heavy industries including iron-steel, chemical engineering, power, building materials and mechanics, developing even more than the well-known industrial centres of Shenyang, Taiyuan and Tianjin in north China.
As a result, today the city has no remaining clean water sources nearby, and the central government has decided to spend enormous sums on a south-north water diversion project.
According to Wang Jian, the city has done everything possible to find additional water sources. In the 1950s, four reservoirs, Guangting, Miyun, Huairou and Haizi were built, with a combined storage capacity of 9.3 billion cubic metres.
Then in the 1960s, Beijing built canals between Miyun and Guangting. In the 1970s, 40,000 motor-pumped wells were dug. In the 1980s, 133,000 hectares (2 million mu) of irrigated farmland surrounding the city, was taken out of production, and some industries were reorganized to reduce water consumption.
The water supply situation was getting worse in the 1980s because of a rapid development of water-intensive industries and urban population growth. Beijing could safely extract an average of 2.5 billion cubic metres of underground water on an annual basis, but the actual volume pumped from the underground in the 1980s and 1990s ranged from 2.8 to 2.9 billion cubic metres annually. The total volume exceeding the limit is as high as 5 billion cubic metres, which has created a huge funnel underground in east Beijing, covering an area of 2,000 square kilometers. What makes the situation worse is water pollution: the municipality has to spend a lot of money to deal with the water pollution, while industries continue to consume large quantities of water.
With a sharp decline in the supply of underground water, the municipal government of Beijing made a decision to use two reservoirs, Miyun and Guanting for the city’s main water supply in the mid-1980s. Together, they provided 1.17 million cubic metres of water to Beijing daily.


The Miyun Reservoir

The experience with Miyun reservoir demonstrates the difficulties Beijing has had protecting one of its largest water sources.
Completed in the 1960s, Miyun has a maximum water storage capacity of 4.37 billion cubic metres. It was originally designed to be a multi-purpose reservoir, controlling floods, generating power, irrigating farmlands and providing water to Beijing.
In the early 1980s, however, the Miyun county government had a plan to develop the area surrounding Miyun into a big tourist site. The reservoir management agency and other government units built hotels and cottages, and the number of tourists visiting on the weekends soared to tens of thousands. But it turned out this approach was a disaster for the quality of water in the reservoir, as the water became fouled by household sewage, garbage, chemicals, and even E-coli bacteria.
Fortunately, the municipal government took action by setting up a special agency in charge of water conservation, and issuing regulations to curb commercial activities. It also demolished the hotels and cottages surrounding the reservoir.
Shortly after that, ignoring the new conservation agency’s regulations, the county government encouraged iron ore mining in the reservoir area as an alternative source of revenue. The surrounding hills were dynamited, the forests were stripped, and soils eroded as a result. Even worse, iron ore tailings were directly discharged into the reservoir, causing an even more serious pollution problem in the water supply than before.
The municipal government eventually issued a regulation to ban the mining activities, after which local people, believing it to be more environmentally friendly than tourism and mining, turned to caged fish culture. Within a few years, the caged fishery expanded to cover an area of 4.5 hectares in the reservoir. But an environmental impact assessment (EIA) report by the Environment Protection Bureau of Beijing discovered that raising fish also imposed a threat to the quality of water of the reservoir due to the large amounts of bait and fish waste being expelled into the reservoir. The level of pollution caused by fish farming was comparable to the discharge of a large city.
Guanting reservoir
The experience with Guanting reservoir provides another example of how an important water source can became seriously polluted unless timely and effective measures are taken to prevent the problem.
Located on the Yongding River, 100 kilometres northwest of downtown Beijing, the Guanting reservoir became the city’s second largest water source with a storage capacity of 4.16 billion cubic metres. In the mid-1980s, it was supplying drinking water to tens thousands of residents living in Mentougou district, west of downtown Beijing.
Dating back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of industries were developed upstream of the reservoir, including mining, pesticide and pharmaceuticals, leather, papermaking, metallurgy, and textiles. In 1972, people living near the reservoir area got sick after eating fish contaminated by pollutants. As the results of tests showed, fish from Guanting had a very high DDT content – 2 milligrams per kilogram which far exceeds what Japan considers a level safe for consumption: less than 0.11mg/kg. The test results shocked Premier Zhou Enlai at the time and he ordered further investigation.
Within this context, the central government established the water conservation leadership group of Guanting basin to conduct further investigations of water quality. The investigation team discovered that at least 242 industries and factories were discharging polluted water into rivers upstream of the Guanting reservoir. In 1973, the central government set up a special fund of 30 million yuan RMB (US$ 4 million) to deal with the problem.
According to Wang Jian, there was no further decline in water quality between 1973 and 1983 due to various clean-up measures taken by the conservation group in collaboration with upstream industries. From 1984, however, water quality became worse after the Guanting conservation group was dismantled and a surge of small enterprises were built along the rivers upstream of the reservoir.
By 1997, the Guanting reservoir was no longer used for drinking water supply in Beijing because many residents complained about the bad smell of the water. [TGP Editor’s Note: The Miyun reservoir is still supplying Beijing’s Mentougou district.]
As Wang Jian put it, “The volume of water has been declining and the quality of water is deteriorating at the same time. The total volume of water stored in the Guangting reservoir was 170 million cubic metres in 2004 and only 110 million cubic metres as of late June 2007. And the quality of water is now ranked as low as “Grade 5” which is considered unfit for any economic purpose, including irrigation.”
Despite this, the government is considering using the Guanting reservoir once again as a drinking water source due to the growing shortage of water in Beijing. Obviously, before this could happen, a great deal of work must be done to clean up the reservoir and river valleys upstream.


Where will Beijing get its water in the future?

According to Wang Jian, the surface water available for use in Beijing has been declining: from 4.7 billion cubic metres in the 1950s, 2 billion cubic metres in the 1960s, 1.5 billion cubic metres in the 1980s, to 1.3 billion cubic metres in the 1990s.
In terms of per capita water resource, about 2,000 cubic metres per head annually in the early 1950s, when the total population was around 2 million; but currently, the figure has sharply dropped to less than 300 cubic metres per head annually with a population of 16 million.
In 2000, Beijing consumed 4.048 billion cubic metres of water, including 1.34 billion cubic metres of surface water and 2.708 billion cubic metres of underground water. Of this, 3.748 billion cubic metres was for industrial, domestic and agricultural uses, with a loss of 0.3 billion cubic metres in transportation and supply distribution.
Wang Jian raises the question: with less water coming from the rivers, lower levels in nearby lakes and reservoirs, over-pumping of underground water, worsening quality, and a growing demand, how and from where will Beijing get its water?
As Wang Jian points out, transferring water from the south to Beijing can be seen as an emergency measure to ease the shortage of water supply for a while but it is not a fundamental solution to the problem facing Beijing.
The key to addressing the water crisis will depend on how well Beijing can, among other strategies: restructure industries, reduce irrigation water use, promote efficient use of water, and re-use wastewater.

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