Beijing Water

Beijing’s water crisis

Toby Skinner
Time Out Beijing
March 15, 2007

In the short-term, the drought which lasted for most of the winter had surprisingly few effects on the lives of Beijingers bar a few newspaper headlines.

But the fact that Beijing can get through 110 days without rain poses the serious question – where is the water coming from, and how long can the city keep it fl owing from its taps?

The city consumes over 3.4 billion cubic metres of water a year, though its water availability per head is just 1/32 of theinternational average.

To meet the demand, around three quarters of the city’s water is pumped through wells from an underground supply which is rapidly diminishing, despite being topped up by regular water diversion projects from across China.

To give an idea of how much water levels have dropped, in the 1950s there were over 1,000 hot springs in the area around the Summer Palace; now there are almost none, and the Kunming Lake would likely be dry if it weren’t for water diversion.

Local farmers say the level of the Miyun Reservoir, Beijing’s largest, has dropped by 20 metres since 1998. ‘People need to realise how dire the situation is,’ says Ma Jun, the author of the explosive bookChina’s Water Crisis (1999) and probably China’s most important environmental lobbyist (in 2006, he was the only Chinese person on Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most infl uential people).

‘The water table under Beijing has been dropping steadily since the 1980s, largely due to the chronic overpopulation here, and the layers of underground water are being consumed incredibly quickly.’

So might Beijing run out of water? Environmental group Probe International wrote a report last year predicting a crisis leading to ‘economic shutdown’ within fi ve to ten years. Ma can’t foresee that, but points out that the only measures preventing a full water crisis are costly and unsustainable.

The most drastic solution is the massive 424 billion RMB South- North water diversion scheme, which is already underway and will see three canals built to bring water from tributaries of the Yangtze River in central Hubei Province to the Yellow River south of Beijing and on to the capital itself.

The delay-struck scheme is expected to deliver around one billion cubic metres of water to Beijing by 2014 (it was meant to be running by 2010), and will also serve a large area of North China. ‘It’s important that people recognise that this [the diversion scheme] does not fi ll the whole gap,’ says Ma.

‘Plus, there is always an environmental impact in an area you take water from. We already have rivers drying up across China and water tablesdropping; eco-systems and species are disappearing. By finding new ways to provide water, China is over-exploiting its resources.’

Furthermore, problems with the project are already being reported, from engineering hitches to troubles with pollution and issues relocating displaced residents.

The real solution, says Ma, is conservation rather than diversion. ‘Beijing still discharges hundreds of millions of tonnes of urban sewage, and the irrigation used by farmers is too inefficient; we need to re-use and recycle those resources better. This problem isn’t just going to go away.’ Toby Skinner

Drought by numbers

2.5 billion: Cubic metres of water pumped annually from underground, around three quarters of Beijing’s total consumption.

16 percent: Percentage of the Miyun Reservoir’s water capacity currently available.

78 percent
: Drop in water levels at the Haizi Reservoir, Beijing’s third largest, since 2001.

424 billion
: RMB cost of the South-North water diversion scheme, to divert water from the Yangtze River to Beijing

: Number of people relocated due to the expansion of the Danjiangkou Reservoir, part of the South-North water diversion scheme.

Sources:, Daily Telegraph, BBC, China Daily

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