Beijing Water

Beijing’s water crisis

(July 26, 2008) Within a generation Beijing may cease to exist, environmentalists warn.
Few in the Chinese capital are aware of the price their city would pay for staging the world’s first ‘green Olympics’ in August. The fabulous capital of Chinese emperors and the epitome of modern China’s ambitions is being driven to extinction by its chronic lack of water. And the Olympic Games are expediting the city’s slow demise, according to experts.

“Within a generation this city would cease to exist,” says Dai Qing, China’s best-known environmentalist. “We won’t have the ancient capital any longer and the ugly modern Beijing would disappear too. Unfortunately, government officials and Beijing residents are equally unaware of how serious the water crisis is.”

When the Olympic Games open on August 8, visitors will marvel at musical fountains and huge water landscapes throughout the capital. Spectators will enjoy rowing competitions on the dried out Chaobai river — which has been brought back to life by diverting water through a 13 kilometre-long underground pipe from another Beijing river.

This water exuberance in a city constantly battered by sand storms in China’s arid northern plain and would be made possible thanks to large engineering schemes transferring water from the capital’s neighbouring provinces and through Beijing’s ever deeper extraction of underground water.  In preparations for the Olympic Games Beijing authorities are developing man-made lakes and adding around 200 million cubic metres of water — or about 5 per cent — to normal use of water this year.

Neighbouring provinces, which have been called upon to share the capital’s burden of hosting the Olympics are crying foul. In Hebei province the dictum to provide Beijing with clean water has deprived farmers of water for irrigation and nipped hundreds of industrial projects in the bud.

“Hebei itself is short of several billion cubic metres of water a year,” says Feng Qiancheng, director of the water resources bureau of the provincial department for water conservation. “We give with one hand to Beijing, and we have to buy with the other one from Shandong province.”

According to a newly published report by Canadian public interest research group Probe International, Beijing’s 200 or so rivers and streams are drying up and many of the city’s reservoirs are nearly empty. More than two-thirds of the city’s water supply now comes from groundwater, extracted some 1,000 metres or more underground.

Dai Qing, who edited the report, stresses that much of the information about Beijing’s water crisis — like the extent of city’s dependence on underground water resources — remains top secret. “There are five underground reservoirs for tapping groundwater in Beijing but there is no stopping the city government’s plans for further expansion,” she told the Foreign Correspondents Club of China at the launch of the report.

Dai Qing, a prominent journalist, is well known for waging environmental fights against Beijing’s obsession with large-scale engineering works and paying the price for it. She was once  sent to jail for criticising the construction of China’s Three Gorges Dam — the world’s largest.

“Holding ‘green Olympics’ in a city so lacking of water like Beijing is paying lip service to green development,” Dai Qing charges. “I would say city officials all boarded the Olympics train to use the games as pretext for making money by developing huge projects.”

When Beijing bid to host the Olympics back in 2001, city planners were well aware that the city did not have the capacities to support the Olympics-imposed demand for water, explained Grainne Ryder, policy director at Probe International. “The crisis doesn’t begin and doesn’t end with the Olympics,” she noted. “What the Olympics have done, however, has accelerated an approach to supply expansion — that is not sustainable — that’s costly and that will only drive more wasteful or profligate consumption.”

A case in point is Chinese planners’ decision to meet the capital’s mounting demands for water by investing in huge infrastructure projects that would divert water from the country’s rivers in the south up north via a complicated system of canals and aqueducts.

The most ambitious plan — the South to North Water Diversion — was first proposed by late communist leader Mao Zedong in 1952 and approved by the government in 2001. Its eastern route is projected to supply Beijing with one billion cubic metres of water a year by 2010, pumped from the Yangtze River along a 1,277km canal.

If all three routes of this project are completed, as much as 48 billion cubic metres of water will be diverted from the Yangtze. Thep roject’s total cost is estimated to be at least US$60 billion dollars more than double the officially admitted cost of $28 billion for the Three Gorges Dam.

“South-North diversion proponents talk of quenching Beijing’s thirst with ‘surplus’ water from the Yangtze, as if draining China’s longest river — Shanghai’s water supply — would have little or no economic orenvironmental consequence for the millions of people in southern and south-western China,” notes Probe’s report.

In January, Chinese engineers began diverting water from the Yellow River to boost the capital’s dwindling supplies. Up to 150 million cubic metres of water are projected to flow 400 kilometres to lake Baiyangdian, south of Beijing, before the Olympics. Four newly constructed reservoirs in upstream Hebei province are expected to supply an additional 400 million cubic metres of water to Beijing in time for the Olympics.

“But even if all of these projects are completed and water indeed flows as projected, Beijing would still need to pump an excessive amount of underground water,” Ryder reckons. She predicts that the Chinese capital will run out of water in five to 10 years and would be faced with the difficult choices of moving the capital entirely or shutting down industries and resettling part of its population. “I would imagineit would be a phased shutdown of its economy, an economic collapse,”she suggests.

Press, Antoaneta Bezlova / PS Asia-Pacific / AsiaNews, My Sinchew, July 26, 2008

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