Beijing Water

Water crisis in parched northern China

Robert J. Saiget
August 4, 2009

YIXIAN, China – The river has dried up, the well yields only dust, and Li Yunxi is hard pressed to irrigate his plot of land, even though he lives right next to the largest water project in history.

The elderly farmer watches in despair as his corn crop wilts under the scorching northern China sun, knowing that a fresh, abundant stream is only a stone’s throw away.

“We ordinary people don’t dare use that water,” Li told AFP as he nodded toward the fenced-in canal, part of China’s hugely ambitious but troubled South-North Water Diversion Project.

“That water is for Beijing, and people here do not steal water.”

The temperatures have approached 40 degrees centigrade (104 degrees Fahrenheit) for weeks this summer in Hebei province, a region surrounding Beijing that has been stricken by drought for much of the last decade.

But although Li’s crops are withering away, he is getting no sympathy from the authorities — quite the opposite.

Earlier this year the government announced that the completion of the project’s central canal, stretching 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) from a tributary of the Yangtze river to Beijing, will be delayed five years to 2014.

This means that instead of being a beneficiary of the project, Hebei will now be tasked with supplying water to the capital until the project is completed.

The delay will further complicate a water shortage in northern China that experts say is caused by global warming, drought and rising demand from 96 million people who live in the booming Beijing region that includes Hebei.

Currently a 300-kilometer portion of the canal from the Hebei city of Shijiazhuang to Beijing is supplying emergency water to the capital from three reservoirs that previously provided water to the parched province.

The canal, which sits above Li’s farmland, abruptly disappears as it nears the dry riverbed of the North Yishui river only to reappear on the opposite bank next to a large pump station that sucks the water through pipes underneath the dusty riverbed.

“There has been no water in the river for 30 years,” the bronzed Li said, sweating under a straw hat, a partially capped silver tooth gleaming in the sunlight.

His family’s well dried up about 10 years ago, so he like other villagers must now rely on water from a machine-pumped well — and pay for it, making irrigation prohibitively expensive.

“At first the machine-pumped well was only 30 or 40 meters deep, now it is well over 100 metres deep,” Li said of the falling underground water table, a phenomenon seen throughout north China.

This situation should have been alleviated by the water diversion project — an unprecedented 400-billion-yuan ($58-billion) plan to channel water from the humid south to the parched north along three separate lines.

“Now that (construction of the canal) has been pushed back for five years, we will see a deepening of the crisis in the North China region,” said Zhang Junfeng, a water expert with Green Earth Volunteers, an environmental group.

“The North-South project was supposed to come on line earlier and it was designed to reduce the amount of underground water being used in urban areas.”

The delay means that the region will have to rely on pumping more underground water to meet demand.

Zhang estimates that Beijing already pumps up to two thirds of its water from underground aquifers with wells in some place up to 1,000 meters deep.

Government officials with the South-North project and the Hebei water resources authority refused to be interviewed for this article.

But according to plans, in 2014 about 13 billion cubic meters (460 billion cubic feet) of water is expected to be channelled along the central canal from the Yangtze tributary every year, with one tenth earmarked for Beijing.

The rest will go to Hebei and other cities and regions along the route, while a significant amount will be lost to evaporation and leakage, the government has said.

Beijing’s total water consumption in 2008 was 3.5 billion cubic metres, according to government figures.

According to state press reports, the delay in construction stems from the rising costs of the project as well as the resettlement of up to 300,000 people still living along the route of the canal.

Costly plants to treat badly polluted water along the project’s eastern line have also put the construction and the delivery of water on that line behind schedule, they said.

A western line that was to transfer water from the headwaters of the Yangtze river to the Yellow river along the Tibetan plateau, which had been scheduled to break ground in 2010, has been postponed indefinitely, reports said.

If the western line is scrapped completely the overall cost of the project will fall significantly, they said.

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