Beijing Water

Beijing’s water crisis and economic collapse

Richard Welford
CSR Asia

Beijing consumes more water than is deposited there by rainfall and snow and has been forced into major water mining projects. In the past, around 50 years ago, the city had numerous aquifers that could be tapped by relatively shallow wells of 2 to 3 meters. Now wells of 50 metres are required to access that water. Indeed of Beijing’s consumption of almost 4 billion cubic metres of water per annum, most still comes from the disappearing aquifers. The fear is that this source of water is rapidly drying up and that has the potential to plunge the capital into major water resource crisis.

Indeed, the Chinese capital’s water crisis is so critical that the city is facing economic collapse, a leading development policy group has said. Part of its population may need to be resettled in coming decades. Experts predict Beijing could run out of water in five to 10 years, according to the report by Canada-based Probe, called Beijing’s Water Crisis: 1949-2008 Olympics.

Beijing would potentially have to start shutting down industry as the city would be incapable of supporting current levels of infrastructure or population. The report predicts a phased shut-down of its economy, and economic collapse and says that authorities had already discussed moving people out of the capital to other cities.

This scenario, while extreme, highlights Beijing’s water crisis. According to the report, the city’s 200 or so rivers and streams are drying up, and its reservoirs are almost empty. More than two-thirds of the city’s water supply now comes from groundwater, and Beijing is extracting water originally intended for use in emergencies, such as war, from 1km or more underground. More groundwater is becoming polluted.

More than two-thirds of Beijing’s total water supply comes from groundwater. The rest comes from the dwindling supplies of surface water coming from rivers and reservoirs. Beijing’s two largest reservoirs, Miyun and Guanting, now hold less than ten percent of their original storage capacity and Guanting is so polluted that it has not been used as drinking water for more than ten years now.

Official data suggests that population growth, industrial development and expansion of irrigated farmland have driven huge increases in water consumption since 1949. Moreover, 25 years of drought and pollution of the available water have contributed to a severe decline in water availability. Indeed, available water resources per person have dwindled from 1000 cubic metres in 1949 to less than 230 cubic metres in 2007. This is around 3 per cent of the global average availability and only 2 per cent of that consumed in the USA. As lifestyles change the water situation is therefore set to become acute with demand far exceeding supply. Indeed, it is difficult to see just how Beijing is going to tackle the inevitable rising demand for water.

Beijing’s policy of guaranteeing water supply to the capital at little or no charge to consumers has wreaked havoc on farmers and has encouraged wasteful consumption by industrial and urban consumers.

At the same time, water demand is still rising, and the Olympic Games, for which Beijing has developed man-made lakes, musical fountains and new parks, will consume about 200 million cubic metres of water, the report said. Beijing also faces massive problems with pollution and this has concerned Games athletes.

Beijing’s policy of draining surrounding regions to ease water shortages in the capital is akin to “quenching thirst by drinking poison,” according to the report. To keep water flowing to Beijing’s “green” Olympics this August, the water-strapped city is pumping water from four newly-built reservoirs in nearby Hebei province, depriving poor farmers of water for their crops.

City officials insist the water is needed to supply Olympic venues and provide the Olympic Village with drinkable tapwater. And they say more water transfers will be needed from the Yangtze River by 2010 and beyond, to meet Beijing’s rapidly growing demand for water.

But large-scale water transfers won’t solve the fundamental problems facing Beijing, says the report. Nine consecutive years of below-average rainfall combined with rapid urban expansion, dumping of wastewater and sewage into Beijing’s waterways, and over-pumping of groundwater mean the city of 17 million people is fast exhausting its water supply.

The report says that the key to addressing Beijing’s water crisis is not more engineering projects to deliver new supplies. More dams, diversion canals, pipelines and desalination plants may be technically feasible but they are economically and environmentally ruinous. Rather than endless expansion of the city’s water supply by expropriating water from other jurisdictions, the report recommends curbing demand through efficiency improvements in water supply and consumption using new legislation combined with economic incentives, better governance of water resources and the water industry, including restrictions on urban development and water-guzzling industries, enforcement of anti-pollution laws, tradable water rights, and regulation of water utilities.

Creating a more sustainable system in Beijing is going to be hugely challenging. But what Beijing is facing now is not unlike that being faced by many big cities around the world. The sooner we see water as in crisis and as capable of halting economic growth, then the sooner we might recognize the need to do something about the situation, and fast. There is a clear role for business, often big consumers of water, to take a lead on the water issue. With ever increasing urbanization and the impacts on water availability because of climate change, the risk that water has for business is immense. ■

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