Beijing Water

Beijing’s Water Binge

China Environmental Law
June 27, 2008

Apparently Beijing is consuming water at the rate Marie Antoinette consumed petit fours and there is always a price to pay for such gluttony. Many news organizations (see, e.g., here and here) reported today on a new study, published by Probe International and written by a Chinese environmentalist, entitled “Beijing’s Water Crisis: 1949-2008 Olympics” which reads like a Temperance Union pamphlet. Neither the content nor the timing of the release of this report was calculated to win friends in high places. Money quote (p. v):

Beijing’s policy of guaranteeing water supply to the capital at little or no charge to consumers – even as its rivers and reservoirs were drying up – has wreaked havoc on Beijing farmers and encouraged wasteful consumption by industrial and urban consumers. In the last five years, with Beijing’s surface and groundwater supplies nearing exhaustion, the State Council and Beijing authorities have announced several policies to guarantee an adequate water supply for Beijing during the 2008 Olympics and beyond. The policies include:

  • “emergency water transfers” from existing and proposed reservoirs in Hebei province (2008) and the Yangtze River in Hubei province (starting 2010);
  • restrictions on surface and groundwater use in upstream Hebei province in an effort to increase river flow to Beijing;
  • extraction of karst groundwater from depths of 1,000 metres or more from Beijing’s outlying districts.

Such policies for taking ever more water and from ever further jurisdictions beyond Beijing may be an emergency measure to ease Beijing’s water shortages and flush out its polluted waterways, but it is not a fundamental solution. Long distance diversion is extraordinarily expensive and environmentally damaging. Even if water is successfully diverted from Hebei province in 2008 and the Yangtze River in 2010, groundwater will continue to be Beijing’s most important water source. The municipality will still need to continue pumping about three billion cubic metres of groundwater annually to keep up with the forecasted growth in demand – that’s 500 million cubic metres more than the annual allowable limit for “safe” extraction of groundwater. With each new project to tap water somewhere else, demand for water only increases, and at an ever greater cost to China’s environment and economy. Whether diverting surface water or digging ever-deeper for groundwater, the underlying solution proposed is like trying to quench thirst by drinking poison.

Ouch! I can certainly see this situation is not sustainable, so I’ve got my left foot on the stirrup, but before I throw my right leg over my high horse, can someone tell me if what Beijing is doing (ignoring the low water tariffs which is clearly an insane policy) is significantly different from how Los Angeles deals with its water issues?

The highlight of the study for me was that it shed a little more light on the history of the Guanting Reservoir. Long-time readers of this blog may recall that Green Action in China (pp. 5-7), an official publication of China’s Foreign Language Press traces China’s environmental awakening to

March 1972 [when] some Beijing residents reported food poisoning symptoms such as weakness, headache, stomach-ache and nausea after eating fish bought from a Beijing market. The health department immediately reported this to the State Council. Premier Zhou Enlai instructed the case be investigated.

There always seemed to be something missing from this story (why was a case of bad fish reported to Zhou Enlai?), and indeed there was. Turns out (as reported by the Probe International study on p. 8 and attributed to 1971, but it must be the same incident):

Local residents fell ill after eating fish caught from the [Guanting] reservoir’s polluted water. Tens of thousands of fish in the reservoir had died, but at that time few people had any concept of pollution or the environment. Because the incident occurred during the “Great Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976) it was immediately linked to politics. The rumour went that “class enemies” had poisoned the reservoir in an attempt to kill Chairman Mao Zedong and other top Communist Party leaders who were living downstream at Zhongnanhai.

To determine the real cause of the pollution, the central government assembled a team of 300 experts. Their mandate was to assess the state of the reservoir scientifically, including the quality of water flowing into the reservoir and the relationship between pollutants and human health. The team, known as the Guanting Reservoir Conservation Group, quickly discovered that at least 242 industries and factories were polluting the rivers which flow into the reservoir. They identified the worst polluters as 39 state enterprises engaged in mining and the production of pesticides, pharmaceuticals, leather, paper, and rubber.

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