Beijing Water

Water Crisis in North China

Tian Lei

October 2, 2008

Beijing’s demand for water is putting pressure on upstream Hebei and Shanxi provinces to tap new supplies. South Wind Window reporter Tian Lei investigates north China’s devastating water crisis.

Water Crisis in North China

By Tian Lei
South Wind Window (Nanfengchuan)
Originally appeared on June 21, 2008
Translated by Three Gorges Probe

Geographically, China’s two super big cities, Beijing and Tianjin, are located within Hebei Province, thus the two cities’ huge water demand is making the water shortage situation in north China worse and worse.

Currently, almost all rivers in the North China Plain go to several large reservoirs such as Guanting, Miyun, Gangnan, Wangkuai, and Huangbizhuang. [see map]

Within Hebei Province, most rivers north of Beijing and Tianjin go to the Guanting and Miyun reservoirs, with a combined storage capacity of four billion cubic metres. The others flow into the Luanhe River, which supplies the Luanhe-Tianjin water diversion project. Reservoirs south of Beijing and Tianjin supply water to seven big cities such as Shijiazhuang, Baoding and Handan.

Outside the cities, a vast area of land that includes county towns and villages has been forgotten. Here, the only way to get drinking water or water for agriculture and industry is to pump water from underground. Villagers’ lives are totally dependent on wells that have been dug deeper and deeper. In most cases, it’s hard to find groundwater even as deep as 150 metres or more.

Over the past 50 years, the province’s shallow water table has dropped an average of nearly 15 metres, while the deeper water table has dropped an average of about 40 metres. Over the last ten years, Wei Zhimin, a senior water expert in Hebei, says that land subsidence problems have occurred in 200 places within the province, an area of 6,000 square kilometres. The worst known case is in Cangzhou City, where the ground has sunk by as much as three metres since the early 1970s.

Land subsidence: Zhaili Village

Another recent incident occurred in Zhaili Village, Baixiang County, 60 kilometres south of Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei Province. South Wind Window travelled to the village in April 2008 to have a look at what the eight-kilometre-long crack looked like. But villagers there seemed to have forgotten the incident that had reportedly frightened them so much just one year earlier because they had a much more pressing issue to worry about – the village well.

For a long time, the people of Zhaili Village, with a total population of 1,500, have shared a well. But in 2007, the villagers were dismayed to find it hard to pump water from the well. To limit water use per household, the village decided to charge residents eight yuan for each three cubic metre jar of water – a price much higher  than what residents pay in the province’s major cities.

For local people accustomed to using the well water for free, the new charge is unacceptable. Resentment is running so high that villagers are complaining everywhere and venting their anger at the village committee. With helplessness written on his face, village committee member Yang Lifeng explains, “We have no choice but to do this because it’s becoming harder and harder to pump the water from the well. Just the cost of electricity (for pumping) alone is more than 10,000 yuan each year. It’s impossible for our village to pay the bill because we have no source of income. So all we can do is ask local people to pay the cost.”

Now the villagers have no choice but to queue and buy water for their everyday needs. Almost all households have also had to build a water cellar to store the water. Like urban residents, the villagers now have to pay a water bill which has become another one of their fixed monthly expenses. As Wei Minle, one of the villagers in Zhaili, put it, “I have five people in my family but we try to use only one jar of water each month in order to save money.” (Mr Wei used just 15 jars of water when building his new three-bedroom house.)

For many people outside this area, eight yuan for a jar of water is definitely not a big deal. For poor farmers, however, it’s a large sum of money and an extra financial burden. And it’s not just in Zhaili Village that people no longer enjoy the tradition of free drinking water. Since 2007, dozens of ancient villages on the North China Plain have started charging residents for drinking water. Carts loaded with water tanks for sale can be seen everywhere.

For the villagers of Zhaili, this isn’t the worst of it. They’re worried they won’t have any water at all in a few years, even if they are willing to pay for it. Already, their 200-metre-deep well seems to be drying up. And the water that is pumped up is becoming too dirty and smelly to drink. “The problem was created by those paper factories near the village,” one villager told South Wind Window.

Around Zhaili Village there are dozen of paper-making factories that require a lot of water and are having difficulty because of the area’s water shortage. Without any rivers in the area, all these factories make paper by pumping groundwater and then discharging their wastewater to the fields without any treatment. “The factories have money so each of their plants has a well nearly 300 metres deep that pumps water from the ground 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Yang Lifeng.

Zhaili villagers are unhappy about the paper factories too, but they can do nothing about it. The Baixiang County government needs the factories to get more tax revenue,  while many villagers work there to earn cash to raise their families. No wonder then that wells in the area are drying up one by one: it takes as much as four cubic metres of water to make one tonne of paper in those plants.

Dry year, every year in Hebei

Hebei’s two largest reservoirs are the Huangbizhuang and Gangnan reservoirs on the Hutuo River in the central and southern part of the province. They face three challenges. First, they are required to provide water for three million mu (1 mu=1/15 ha) of irrigated farmland and supply industrial and domestic water to Shijiazhuang City, the provincial capital. Second, they are required to transfer as much as 200 million cubic metres of water to Beijing for the Olympics. Third, and maybe most importantly, half the water flowing into the two reservoirs from upstream Shanxi Province may soon be diverted to water users in that province.

On April 17, 2008, South Wind Window travelled to the Huangbizhuang Reservoir, which is located in the suburbs of Shijiazhuang, and spoke with An Zhenggang, director of water regulation for the reservoir management agency. Pointing to the reservoir, An Zhenggang said, “All the water there is reserved for the Olympic event.”  Due to drought, Huangbizhuang and Gangnan were storing only 155 million cubic metres of water – less than what the reservoirs are required to provide to Beijing for the Olympics, according to the government’s plan. A third reservoir, Wangkuai, is required to transfer another 100 million cubic metres to Beijing.

The two larger reservoirs supply irrigation water to more than one million farmers in 14 counties. Getting water released from those reservoirs is the farmers’ top priority for growing crops each year.

But in order to send water to Beijiing this year, the government of Hebei Province reduced the farmers’ quota (or amount of water released) for irrigation. According to Yang Chunjian, a worker at the Huangbizhuan reservoir hydraulic monitoring station, at least 280 million cubic metres of water is normally released for irrigation. But this year, he said, only 218 million cubic metres is available, which is not enough to meet the farmers’ needs.

“So far the quota of water for irrigation this year has already been used and there are  plenty of wheat fields not covered at all yet,” An Zhenggang said. “The farmers are still crying out for more water. For this reason, the provincial officials gathered for a special meeting [a few days ago] to make a decision whether or not a little more water could be released for farmers on the condition that we still guarantee water for Beijing’s Olympic Games.”

“A couple of days ago we got a notice from the provincial government that we could go ahead and open, so will lift the floodgates to release water tomorrow morning. With this amount of water, at least 70 percent of the farmers’ wheat yield can be guaranteed.” An Zhenggang relaxed a little but then sighed and said he had no idea about the water for irrigation this fall because there was no water quota left. “Everything is up to the sky, so everybody is looking forward to a little more rain this summer hopefully,” Mr An added.

Clearly, the task of transferring water to Beijing for the Olympics put a great deal of pressure on the Huangbizhuang Reservoir but it was far from a life and death situation since the transfer was only an emergency arrangement, part of a temporary plan. A far bigger headache for An Zhenggang and others in Hebei is what’s going on upstream: Shanxi Province is building a water diversion project on the Hutuo River, which feeds Huangbizhuang [and Gangnan reservoir] People in Xinzhou City have endured water shortages for years and have long dreamed of building a reservoir on the Hutuo River. Whether or not to build it there, between Hebei and Shanxi provinces, has been debated for many years.

Huangbixhuang Reservoir

Shanxi Province: the situation is worse

As a matter of fact, the water situation in Shanxi1 is more serious than in neighbouring Hebei Province. According to official statistics, the water consumption per capita in Shanxi is only 180 cubic metres—the lowest in the country. In the last hundred years, almost every provincial head that has taken office has vowed to resolve the problem of water shortages but nobody has ever really got the job done.

As early as 1917, Yan Xishan, then chairman of Shanxi’s provincial administration, proposed an ambitious plan to transfer water to Shanxi from the Yellow River [the Yellow River flows almost 600 kilometres north-south along the border between Shanxi and Inner Mongolia first and then Shaanxi]. The plan was never carried out although the engineers’ original survey report can still be found in the province’s archive room.

Then in 1993, the people in Shanxi started building a diversion project to transfer water from the Wanjiazhai Reservoir on the Yellow River [on the border between Shanxi and Inner Mongolia] to Shanxi’s Loess Plateau. The project was supposed to take ten years to complete and solve Shanxi’s water problems permanently. So far, the Shanxi government has spent 10.3 billion yuan2 on the project but it is still nowhere close to meeting its goal.

“The [diversion scheme] was designed to provide 300 million cubic metres of water annually, but only 80 million is available each year,” said Wang Jinzhong, director of the Shanxi Water Resources Bureau’s research centre. “Also, water transferred from the Yellow is too expensive and too dirty. The farmers cannot afford to pay a price of ten yuan/cubic metres, and the water transferred is so dirty (as low as Grade IV quality) that the treatment plants in Taiyuan [capital of Shanxi] have difficulty treating it properly. Those plants can treat the water to Grade III quality but it’s impossible to treat so much water with a grade of IV.”

It’s no wonder that the transferred water is so dirty because there are so many industrial cities in the upper reaches of the Yellow such as Hohhot, Baotou, Eerdos, Yinchuan, and Lanzhou and so forth. The Yellow receives so much polluted water that the water is already ranked below Grade V when flowing into the Wanjiazhai Reservoir. Therefore, the Yellow River, which is often running dry and plagued by serious pollution, is simply not good enough to supply drinking water to the people in Shanxi.

As far as the damage to underground water is concerned, the situation is also more serious in Shanxi than in Hebei. Along with cracks and subsidence produced by uncontrollable extraction of ground water for irrigation, a bigger problem stems from years of large-scale coal mining. In Shanxi, coal mines of all scales are everywhere, resulting in serious waste of ground water and damage to the underground water system.

North China’s water future

Currently, Shanxi has started building a series of large-scale water projects, which are no longer transferring water from the Yellow but focusing on other main rivers in the province instead, in an attempt to hold as much water as possible within Shanxi.

According to the Shanxi Water Resources Bureau, as many as 30 reservoirs of different sizes will be completed by 2015 for a total new storage capacity of 1.5 billion cubic metres.

The above figures send Hebei Province a clear message: as Shanxi Province builds more reservoirs and water diversion projects in the next ten years, a sharp decline in surface water flowing to Hebei from upstream Shanxi is inevitable.

One such project recently approved is the Pingshang water diversion project (in Shanxi). According to Wang Jinzhong, it will transfer 35 million cubic metres initially and will have a final capacity of 50 million cubic metres.

Shanxi’s plans make An Zhenggang and other experts in Hebei unhappy. “With only a distance of 50 kilometres between the Pingshang water works and the Gangnan Reservoir, the Pingshang will block half the annual runoff [of the Hutuo River] flowing into both Gangnan and Huangbizhuang [in Hebei].” If the project is allowed to go ahead as planned, these two reservoirs now providing drinking water to Shijiazhuang may have to be abandoned and the city of Shijiazhuang will have to start looking for a new place to build a drinking water reservoir.

Facing such disputes and worsening water shortages, Hebei officials and experts have attached importance to the central government’s south-north water project. As water expert Wei Zhimin put it, “It’s possible that Hebei could receive 3.5 billion cubic metres of water in the project’s first phase, which is more than what can be stored in all the province’s reservoirs combined.” He is optimistic that this water [from the Yangtze River] would greatly relieve the people of Hebei who’ve been troubled by the lack of water for years.

Because Hebei, Beijing and Henan are expected to be the main beneficiaries of the south-north water project, many water experts in Shanxi have argued that it’s reasonable for Shanxi to hold back more surface water within its territory, without any need to pay attention to the effect this will have on people living in downstream provinces.

But the south-north water project has been controversial since it was first proposed and made public. A number of questions are being asked: Is there adequate and unpolluted water even available in the south given the rapid economic development there? How can the water that is transferred be allocated more efficiently? Will trans-basin water diversion and large-scale construction destroy the environment in the affected areas and along the canals?

And one more question: even if water is successfully transferred from the south to north China in the next ten years, how can a new round of wasteful water use be avoided in the North China Plain [including Hebei, Shanxi, Beijing and part of Henan]?

Nobody has answered these questions so far.

[1US$ = 7 yuan]

China’s Water Quality Standards*

Class Description
Category I Applies to water sources and national nature reserves
Category II Applies to class A water source protection areas for centralized drinking water supply, sanctuaries for rare fish species and spawning grounds for fish and shrimp
Category III Applies to class B water source protection areas for centralized water supply, sanctuaries for common fish species and swimming zones
Category IV Applies to water bodies for general industrial water supply and recreational waters in which there is no direct human contact with water
Category V Applies to water bodies for agricultural water supply and for general landscape requirements
Category V+ Not to be used

*Chart taken from Probe International’s report “Beijing’s Water Crisis: 1949 -2008 Olympics”


1 Shanxi has a population of approximately 32.97 million (taken from a population census in 2000).

2 The World Bank provided a loan of US$324 million for the project. To sell water from the Wanjiazhai Reservoir to Shanxi Province, a special new agency was set up, known as the Wanjiazhai Water Diversion Management Bureau. The agency sells water for eight yuan per cubic metre, which includes the cost of transfer and treatment, and is more than double the average price of drinking water in Shanxi’s cities.

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