(October 3, 2008) Beijing’s water crisis is back in the news after a few months’ hiatus around the Olympic Games.
In a post-Olympic about-face, China’s official news agency announced recently that Beijing was diverting “emergency water” from neighbouring Hebei province to ease what officials called the capital’s “grim water situation.”
The water is flowing through a 307-kilometre canal that was rushed to completion last April in time for the Olympics but has not been used until now.
Before the Olympics, officials said the canal was needed to supply Beijing during the August Games, when demand for water was expected to spike 10 to 30 percent.
During the Olympics, however, no water flowed through the canal. Officials said that Beijing, which has suffered nine years of drought, didn’t need the water.
Beijing environmentalist Dai Qing suspects the decision not to pump water from Hebei during the Games was entirely political: the authorities wanted to avoid inflaming anger over the water diversion and generating more negative publicity during the games.
Since construction began last year, the Hebei diversion project has sparked farmers’ protests and criticism in the local media and the national parliament. The diversion canal has displaced more than 30,000 people, depriving them of the land and water needed to grow crops—all so drought-stricken Beijing could appear lush and green during the Olympics. Hebei, which surrounds Beijing, has its own extreme water shortages and can ill afford to send water to the capital.
In the lead up to the Olympics, Western media outlets quickly picked up on the controversy after Reuters’ Beijing correspondent Chris Buckley hit the newswires with his article, “Olympic canal drains parched farmers.”
In June, a report by Beijing environmentalist Dai Qing and Probe International drew even more international attention to the problem, calling Beijing’s emphasis on long distance water transfers a shortsighted policy akin to “quenching thirst by drinking poison.”
In response to Probe’s report, the ministry of water resources officials told the media that no water would be diverted from Hebei for the Olympics and that the city had a sustainable water supply plan for the megacity.
Dai Qing suspects that either the unusually plentiful rains at the time of the Olympic games meant the authorities had enough surface water to meet its needs temporarily, or the city pumped more groundwater than usual.
Now with the Olympics over and water flowing through the canal, Dai Qing says, “the authorities should let the public and media know where the city’s water is coming from, who is using the water, how much, and at what cost.”
In the past, the Beijing Water Authority has said water diverted from outside Beijing would relieve pressure on the city’s depleted aquifers. The city gets about three-quarters of its total water supply from underground aquifers and has been over-pumping those aquifers for the past decade or more.
Now officials seem deliberately vague, saying only that water from Hebei is needed to ease Beijing’s shortage which “is expected to reach a crisis point in 2010.”
Meeting Beijing’s water needs seems to have become a political football, lurching from crisis one day to no crisis the next: At the end of the Olympics, and just weeks before this most recent declaration of doom, both the ministry of water resources and the Beijing Water Authority said Beijing didn’t need to take water from Hebei because of unusually plentiful rain, lower than expected demand, and successful water recycling that the government promoted as part of its “Green Olympics.” Officials even reported that the city’s aquifers had risen half a metre this year after dropping about one metre each year since 1999 due to drought.
The government’s mixed message is confusing, says environmentalist Dai Qing, a longtime critic of the city’s water policies. “How can the public and media trust anything the Beijing Water Authority says about the city’s water supply? First they say the water is needed, then it’s not, and now we’re back to an emergency situation.”
If indeed Beijing did not need Hebei’s water during the Olympics, she adds, the public ought to know why.
If, for example, investments in wastewater treatment plants and water-saving technologies really did help reduce Beijing’s water consumption during the Games that would suggest that even greater and permanent demand reductions may be possible.
If the low demand was because thousands of water-guzzling factories were either shut down or moved before the Olympics, and because of other draconian curbs on water consumption, that reflects conservation by decree, not an improvement in efficiency of water use.
Clearly, more information is needed. As Probe International’s report on Beijing’s water crisis concluded last June: “Without access to verifiable data it is not possible to assess what, if any, effect [water-saving] programs have had on Beijing’s water consumption and demand.”
Even the World Bank, it turns out, has had difficulty getting reliable data from China’s water companies. In its latest report on improving China’s urban water utilities, the Bank found that: “the lack of data and transparency to evaluate utility performance, particularly wastewater. . . undermines efforts to identify problems and ensure accountability, thereby restricting the scope for improving utility performance.”
Meanwhile, Beijing’s water “crisis” is not inevitable. The government’s predicted gap in supply of a billion or so cubic metres of water by 2010 is derived by simply extrapolating population growth and per capita water consumption, assuming no efficiency improvements in either supply or consumption along the way.
This “crisis” projection, which is included in the government’s 11th five-year plan, is an outdated and unreliable basis for investment decision-making, says Grainne Ryder and Dai Qing, editors of the Probe report.
Rather, the plan seems bent on justifying a 1950s-era solution to northern China’s arid climate: the South-North Diversion Project, which aims to take one billion cubic metres of water from the Yangtze River—Shanghai’s main water supply—to Beijing (through Hebei) by 2010.
Supply expansion cost unknown
How much the Hebei transfer scheme will cost Chinese taxpayers and ratepayers is not known.
The Beijing Water Authority’s publicity chief has told media that Beijing will “compensate” Hebei in several stages but declined to give further details.
One source of funding could be the Three Gorges project, according to Guo Shuyan, a former vice-director of the Three Gorges Project construction committee.
In an interview last year, Guo Shuyan told South Wind Window, a popular Guangzhou-based magazine, that money from the government’s Three Gorges Fund could go to the South-North Diversion Project because it is having difficulty raising the financing. Originally, local governments were expected to put up the money for the diversion scheme, with help from the central government. But Mr. Guo, who heads the National People’s Congress finance and economics committee, said that plan has “basically collapsed,” leaving the project authority scrounging for other sources of financing. So far the central government has raised US$1.6 billion for the project’s central route but still needs another US$18.4 billion to complete the project, and that’s not including the cost of water treatment, Mr. Guo said. The original budget was US$10 billion.
The Three Gorges Fund was set up by the central government in 2003 to raise funds for the Three Gorges dam. A government audit of the US$15 billion project last year reported a “surplus” of US$5 billion after the fund collected US$7.77 billion from electricity ratepayers and by selling six of the dam’s turbines to the Shanghai-listed Yangtze Power Company.
Press, Three Gorges Probe, October 3, 2008