Beijing Water

Beijing Olympics taking water from the countryside

Karen Meriik
Radio Netherlands
July 9, 2008

“The 500,000 foreign visitors expected to visit Beijing will certainly get to see some beautiful waterworks, such as the largest fountain in the world in Shunyi. No problem! But the question is: what will happen after the Games? How will people cope?” asks journalist Dai Qing.


The Beijing Olympics will open shortly. Most of the locations for the events are ready, and the authorities in the Chinese capital have planted millions of trees in recent years to make sure these games are also ‘green’. But all that greenery needs water, and that has to be imported from other Chinese provinces.

Prominent Chinese journalist Dai Qing– whose work has been banned from publication in China since 1989, and who is best known for her opposition to the Three Gorges dam project – has the explanation: “Why is this? Because there simply isn’t enough water.”

Recently, a report on the water situation was published. It was written by Ms Dai together with Probe International, a Canadian environmental group, and a number of Chinese experts who prefer to remain anonymous. Ms Dai writes in the report:

“The Beijing water crisis is the result of decades of short-sighted policies. The map of Beijing shows more than 200 rivers and streams, but in reality they are nearly all dry. And the Beijing water sources, once known for their sweet-tasting water, have all disappeared.”

Golf courses

Nowadays Beijing mainly uses ground water to meet its needs, but that is rapidly running out. One of the city’s two most important reservoirs is so polluted that it hasn’t been possible to use it to supply water fit for human consumption for more than ten years. The annual shortfall of some 400 million cubic metres would be raised by a further 200 million cubic metres by the Olympic Games this August.

The need for extra water is being met to a large extent by using water from the neighbouring province of Hebei, which, just like the capital and its environs, has been suffering from drought for years. Dai Qing comments:

“How can you do that? Use country people’s drinking water to spray the golf courses in Beijing?” However, the architects and builders of the Olympic sites have indeed taken water usage into consideration. The steel construction of the main, national stadium – fondly referred to as the ‘Bird’s Nest’ – has special gutters which collect rainwater, which can then be used to irrigate the surrounding area and provide water to flush the lavatories.

BOCOG, the organising committee, says 121 of such water-saving features have been built into or installed at the facilities, and that they will save some one million cubic metres of water in one year. Ultimately, however, that’s just a fraction of the amount of water that will be used up by the Olympic Games.


To meet the rest of the shortfall, Beijing has to rely mainly – as stated above – on neighbouring Hebei province. Concrete channels have been laid from Hebei for this ’emergency water transfer’ to the capital. Water is now rationed and the contents of three reservoirs has been reserved for the Games in August. Jia Zhanguo, whose land is located close to a reservoir which has been allocated to the Games, says:

“Three years ago the local authorities told us there was no longer enough water in the reservoir to irrigate the land. So we collected money for a communal well, but the water level falls by at least a metre every year. This spring we had to drill down 45 metres.”

Mr Jia says they also have to use more pesticides because of the drought; otherwise the land doesn’t produce enough. He and his wife do not seem to have considered the fact that the pesticides will end up in the groundwater.

Greater good

In recent months, Zhang Junfeng has been doing extensive research into the quality and quantity of water in Hebei and Beijing. He acknowledges the problem, but can see no alternative short-term solution.

“For China, as a developing country, the Olympics are far more important than they are for western countries. It is more than a sporting event, it is an opportunity to show the rest of the world what China can do. How our central government can call upon all the country’s resources, for example. It is no problem for China to temporarily sacrifice the welfare of some of its people in exchange for the greater good.” Journalist Dai Qing remains critical.

“The 500,000 foreign visitors expected to visit Beijing will certainly get to see some beautiful waterworks, such as the largest fountain the world in Shunyi. No problem! But the question is: what will happen after the Games? How will people cope?”

*RNW translation (im)

Categories: Beijing Water

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