Beijing Water

Going thirsty so Beijing can drink

The Economist Print Edition
October 9, 2008

The water level at Wangkuai Reservoir, one of the biggest in Hebei province, is close to an historic high—in a region gripped by drought. This has been achieved by hoarding the water. Local farmers say they have received none for two years. A hydroelectric plant by the huge dam is idle. Wangkuai is preparing for what officials call a “major political task”—channeling its water to Beijing, to help boost the city’s severely depleted supplies.

On September 28th, after more than four years’ work on a 307km-long (191-mile) waterway costing more than $2 billion, Beijing began receiving its top-up. Two other large Hebei reservoirs, Gangnan and Huangbizhuang (see map), were the first to feed the new channel. Wangkuai is due to open its sluices in December, says a dam supervisor. Oddly for such a large and supposedly vital project, the launch was low key. Yet the channel’s inauguration was the most notable achievement so far of what, in the coming years, is intended to become a far more grandiose diversion scheme: bringing water from the Yangzi basin to the parched north, along channels stretching more than 1,000km.

China’s leaders have reason to be sheepish. Controversy has long plagued the South-North water diversion project, as the scheme is formally known. Launched with much fanfare in 2002, it was described as a move to fulfill Mao Zedong’s vision of 50 years earlier, when he had said that to solve the north’s chronic shortage it was “OK to lend a little water” from the south. But many worried whether the water would be clean enough, and about the risk of perpetuating the north’s reckless water-consumption habits.

The stretch from Beijing to Shijiazhuang, Hebei’s capital, forms the northernmost end of what is intended to be the central route of three south-north channels. The eastern route has been plagued by delays (sure enough, keeping the water clean is proving hard) and is not intended to supply Beijing. The western one is still on the drawing board. Rather than wait for the crucial middle route to be completed (due in 2010), Beijing is drawing water from the Hebei reservoirs as a stopgap.

Hebei has long sacrificed its water needs to Beijing’s. Some complain that this has exacerbated poverty in Hebei, forcing water-hungry and polluting industries to close and some farmers to forsake rice growing for less water-intensive but also less profitable maize. Compensation has been meager. In the case of the Beijing-Shijiazhuang channel, the capital has agreed to pay Hebei $88m for the first 300m cubic-metre supply of water, due to be completed in March. Water-deprived farmers and industries in Hebei are unhappy.

The Beijing Olympics in August helped to stifle complaints. Few Chinese wanted to spoil the party. Nearly 50,000 people were relocated to make way for the new channel, which includes China’s longest aqueduct. As the three reservoirs began cutting irrigation supplies in 2006, farmers had to turn to far more costly groundwater. Even in Dangcheng township at the foot of the Wangkuai dam, where groundwater is relatively plentiful, some farmers say they have had to plant fewer crops and take up other jobs. Asked about compensation, they snort contemptuously.

“A harmonious society—a peaceful Olympics” says a slogan painted on a wall in Baoding. This is party-speak for “do not make trouble”. The authorities may well have feared water-related disputes might erupt during the games. They had planned to use the new channel before the Olympics began. But even though it was ready in time, they waited until September 18th, one day after the conclusion of the Paralympics, before turning on the spigots. The water took ten days to reach Beijing.

The official reason for the delay was an unusual amount of rainfall in the capital, easing pressure on the water supply. But the Chinese press says the rain has done little to replenish Beijing’s own reservoirs. Dai Qing, a Beijing-based water-conservation activist (sadly a rare breed in China), says the authorities are highly secretive about water-supply data. She speculates, however, that they used relatively clean groundwater to meet Olympic demand. With the games over, they are now turning to Hebei’s less dependably pure supplies.

The extent of Beijing’s predicament is not in doubt. Xinhua, the official news agency, recently said the capital’s water supply was “set to reach crisis point” in 2010. Probe International, a Canadian environmental group, estimated in a report in June that with Beijing’s reservoirs down to one-tenth of their capacity, two-thirds of Beijing’s water supply was now being drawn from underground. Ms Dai says the water table is dropping by a metre a year, threatening “geological disaster”.

Beijing has been trying to reduce demand by increasing water tariffs, which are far too low to cover costs. Xinhua reported that the city government was considering a plan to charge residents two to five times more for water if they exceed a monthly quota. Boosting prices might also encourage recycling. Probe International said Beijing’s industries were now recycling 15% of their water consumption, compared with 85% in developed countries.

When the water arrives from the Yangzi basin, officials in Beijing and Hebei will breathe a little easier. In order to store water for Beijing, Wangkuai has stopped supplying water to Hebei’s Baiyangdian, the largest freshwater lake in northern China. To make up the shortfall, Hebei has had to buy emergency supplies, channeled in from the Yellow River 400km away.

But Ma Jun, an environmental consultant in Beijing, says the relief will be short-lived. Given Beijing’s population growth and its rising levels of domestic water consumption, the city could still face “a dire water challenge” soon after the central route is complete unless it changes its profligate ways. Hebei’s overstretched reservoirs had better be prepared.

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