Beijing Water

Green Olympics not so green for some

ABC Radio Australia

August 1, 2008

As Beijing rounds the last turn in the final lap of its preparations for the Olympics, residents in other parts of China are left counting the cost of what the games means for them.

Presenter: Charlotte Glennie
Speakers: Grainne Ryder, Probe International;
Xiong Baoguo, farmer; Dong Xiuhong, Hebei Villager;
Zhang Junfeng, Director, “Green-Remote”

“Most people don’t realise it’s green now because there’s water coming in from Hebei province and without that water Beijing would look more, very much more like a desert.” — Grainne Ryder

GLENNIE: With the Olympics just days away, Beijing is blooming. The city often criticised for its gray, polluted skies is decorated with tens of millions of flowers. China’s leaders have named these the Green Olympics and Beijing’s looking a lot different to how it did several years ago. Once-dry canals are flowing with water. There are lush green lawns and new recreational facilities including golf courses.

It all looks very environmentally friendly, but conservationists say don’t be fooled.

RYDER: To irrigate all these parks and they’re often doing that in the heat of day so there’s a lot of loss and a lot of waste water. As well a lot of environmentalists point out that 38 golf courses require a lot of water so it’s the imported grass, it’s the golf courses, it all takes a lot of water and it’s water that Beijing simply doesn’t have.

GLENNIE: Probe International is a Canadian non-government organisation which works closely with China’s green movement. Together they’ve been monitoring Beijing’s water-use and its fast depleting reserves.

RYDER: Now the city depends on ground water for about two thirds of its supply and the city’s been over-pumping ground water since the eighties and that means that more water’s being taken out than is being replenished, they’ve also had below average rainfall.

GLENNIE: City authorities say the Olympics have prompted big advances in treating waste water for recycling. But they still have another elaborate plan for making sure they don’t run out of water.

RYDER: Most people don’t realise it’s green now because there’s water coming in from Hebei province and without that water Beijing would look more, very much more like a desert.

GLENNIE: Just a couple of hours drive from Beijing, this is Wei Gong Village in dry and dusty Hebei province. There are no flower pots here. Farmers are urged to grow corn and wheat instead of more lucrative rice and vegetables, because there isn’t enough water to go around.

BAOGUO: They pump water one day, which lasts for that day’s use and the next day’s. Then they release water again. This is to save water and power.

GLENNIE: For nearly a decade Hebei, like other regions of northern China, has suffered a severe drought. This year there’s been more rain than usual, but eking out a living from the land is still tough.

XIUHONG: When the wells dry up, our harvest just relies on the sky, for dry fields. For fields which need water, if we have water we water them. If not, we also just rely on the sky.

GLENNIE: Yet for some years Hebei has been providing water to Beijing. And hosting the Olympics has meant the Capital’s consuming even more water than it used to.

JUNFENG: The population increase causes an increase in water use. Another reason is that during the construction process for the Olympics, many new venues and buildings were built. Beijing’s ecological system, in particular has improved a lot, including dealing with the rivers. All these things need a lot of water.

GLENNIE: So the Hebei-Beijing water transfer arrangement’s been stepped up. Now cutting through the heart of Wei Gong Village is part of a multi-billion dollar water diversion scheme, which officials ordered to be completed in time for the Games. If Beijing runs short of water when the Olympics are on, Hebei is ready. Within an estimated three days millions of cubic metres of water can be pumped through here, all the way to the Capital.

While Beijing drinks, Hebei is parched.

BAOGUO: They don’t let us use it. What can we do? We do want to use it but we can’t. Not allowed. All along the inside of the canal, is cast with lime and pasted with glue to make sure there’s no water leakage. Whatever the government arranges, we just do.

GLENNIE: Farmer Xiong takes me to the location of an underground well, which forever needs to be dug deeper. “It’s 120 metres under the ground,” he says. “Ten years ago the well was sixty metres deep” It’s a big sacrifice for an Olympics none of these villagers will get anywhere near and that has authorities on edge.

XIONG: What can we feel about it as average people? We support the Olympics. That’s it. Right?

GLENNIE: Over the last few months we’ve tried a number of times to get Government permission to film this water diversion project, but we’ve been repeatedly turned down. One official even told us it’s too sensitive. At this time when China’s doing all it can to show off its best face to the world, those in charge seem intent on blocking access to anything which might cast the Olympics in a bad light.

The 300 kilometre Hebei to Beijing waterway is part of an engineering marvel where by the year 2010, it’s planned masses of gushing water will be pumped all the way from China’s lush south to its arid north.

We visit with Chinese water activist Zhang Junfeng. He’s been keeping a close watch on the project and is deeply concerned about its long term sustainability.

GLENNIE: It’s what he calls, a “no other way out” solution, akin to taking water from a man dying of thirst, if you were also dying.

JUNFENG: If Beijing didn’t do the South-North Water Diversion Project, it might face extinction. Diverting water is a solution Beijing has to resort to because there really is no water to use in the area surrounding Beijing, including Hebei. There is no more water available.

GLENNIE: Not long ago authorities were promoting the astounding capacity of this mammoth network of canals and pipelines. But after a spate of bad publicity about breaches of human rights, like stories of poor farmers being denied water, we encounter resistance. A man who identifies himself as “from the local village” demands my press identification, and disappears with it.

Angrily he says he’s calling the police. He says he’s under orders from above, not to let anyone to film here. Someone else has driven a bulldozer across our path to prevent our exit.

GLENNIE: We knew this long distance water diversion was sensitive but we didn’t quite realise this would happen. Someone’s taken my press card and demanded that the police come here. They’ve just arrived. We’re about to go and see what they want.

We’re told not to film, but we still do, surreptiously. A number of people seem very agitated. But the plain clothes police take note of who we are and say we’re free to go. However then they follow us, trailling our car, watching our every move. But there’s no hiding the true extent of northern China’s water crisis. Vast rivers have completely dried up.

JUNFENG: The constant water crisis has been continually pushing Beijing to adjust its ways of behaving. For example, to give up agriculture for industry, then to limit industry to ensure water for daily life, or to bring water in from outside.

GLENNIE: The water shortage has also forced the people of Hebei to change their way of life. Many still rely on agriculture yet in the place of a once precious river, farmers herd animals now and tend corn. From a distance local government officials and plain clothes police are still keeping tabs on us. So close yet so far removed from the lush, abundant image of Beijing’s Green Olympics, they’re committed to portraying their situation and the plight of local residents, as positively as possible.

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