Beijing Water

Oral History: Yongding River in Mentougou District

Below is the sixth in a series of oral histories about Beijing water, as told to Shi He by 60-year-old Wang Yongsen. Wang Yongsen is a farmer and longtime resident of a mountain village in Mentougou District about 70 kilometres due west of downtown Beijing.

Download the pdf here.

Shi He
Translated By: Madeleine Ross and Fang Li

Wang Yongsen (60 years old)

Mentougou District, Yanchi Zhen (Goose Wing Town), Henantai Cun (Henantai Village).

The people in our village originally came from Yanchi Zhen (Goose Wing Town). I’ve heard the older folks say that many years ago, a man from Yanchi looked southward from the north bank of the river, saw that this area of land was pretty good and thinking that it could be opened up, he crossed the Yongding River to the southern bank to set up home on this plateau, founding Henantai Village. He had five sons who then had five families that have extended down to the present day. We are the descendants of those first five families.

There’s no water transportation on this river. I don’t know what the situation is like further down on the plain, but up here in this mountainous area we can’t manage river transport – not even rafts. Actually I should say that there is a little: if anyone needs to build a house, they go into the forest upstream of here, and float the tree trunks down one by one. The way it’s done is to hammer a ring into the log, fasten a rope onto it and then walk ahead and lead it down. If it won’t flow down with the current, then it has to be hauled. But there’s no proper river transport network.

As for fish, there were plenty in the river when we were young. There was never any variety in the way they were prepared; they were just stewed, and then sprinkled with a bit of salt. Carp were the most plentiful, and there were also Crucian carp and catfish. In those days no one went after loach. It’s only in the last few years that they have started fishing for loach in the bottom of rivers and creeks. The biggest carp I’ve ever seen was 15 kilos and I’ve managed to catch three shrimp that were over half a foot long. We used to use cloth made out of very thin paper threads, but later people began fishing by throwing chemicals in, and almost as soon as the chemicals hit the water, the fish would all come floating to the surface. I haven’t been fishing for shrimp since they began using chemicals. Now there are no shrimp to be seen, even when chemicals are thrown in. People still go fishing in the river, but they can only catch tiny little carp like this, not even the length of the palm of my hand.

There’s no comparison between the volume of water in the river when I was young and the volume today. You could even say that there’s no water anymore, it’s just about all dried up. Upstream, the electric power station at Xiamaling was built in the 1950s, and before power was generated we used to go and visit the caves there. They hadn’t built the Zhuwo Reservoir above the power station at that stage so the water came directly from the Guanting Reservoir in a continuous flow. Guanting was the only reservoir at the time. After the Zhuwo Reservoir and the Xiamaling power station were built there wasn’t much water left downstream in the river. Adding that extra reservoir blocked the water. Now it’s only before the rainy season each year when there’s concern about the dam walls being able to hold up, that a few hundred or thousand cubic metres of water are released, and there’s a little more water downstream. Normally we rely on the power plant releasing a bit more water when they’re generating electricity. For the first three or four years they released water every two or three days. But in the last two years, they’ve released less, sometimes you don’t see water even once a month, and when it comes, it’s much less than before.

The main reason there is so little water is because it doesn’t rain. It hasn’t poured with a saturating rain around here for twenty years. What do I mean by that? In these parts we say that, whether it’s heavy or light rain, the mountain slopes get deeply saturated until the water seeps out of the mountains and flows for ten days or half a month – that’s what we call properly wet. Standing under the big Chinese scholar tree (Huaishu) at the entrance to our village, if you look toward the channel, that’s the only place where you’ll see water coming out now, and when it does, that’s when we consider the land to be soaking wet. I haven’t seen water coming out like that for over 30 years. Water comes out in this channel of the river after a cloudburst, but that doesn’t mean anything. The year of the 2003 SARS epidemic it happened once. If you ask me why it never rains, I’d say it’s just like the story of the Fengxian Prefecture in “Journey to the West.”[1]

Before 1980, corn, sorghum and soybeans were planted on about 200 mu (1 mu = 1/15 hectares) of village land on the mountain slopes. By then, the rains were already not as good as in earlier years, and it never rained much in one go. But at least it rained a little, and we could still harvest some crops. The flood plains near the river, where wheat was planted, needed to be irrigated. But we stopped irrigating after July or August, when the wheat was harvested. It wasn’t like now, when irrigation is needed all year long. On the dry areas of the mountain, we can’t grow anything anymore, there just isn’t enough rain. We could plant crops but we wouldn’t have anything to harvest, so we’ve simply stopped planting anything.

Originally, wheat was grown on the flood plain, but when large areas of land began to be used for forestry[2], fruit trees were planted instead: apples were grown on the higher plain while jujubes and apricots were lower down, closer to the river. We still had two water pumps in the village, and had to spend money on electricity each year to pump water to irrigate the flood plains, but then we were only allowed to water the fruit trees on the flood plain and we weren’t allowed to grow vegetables any more. For example, cabbage required water in autumn but all the fruit had been harvested by then and didn’t need water, so the pumps had stopped operating. With such a little scrap of land, it wasn’t worth turning the pumps on even once, so the cabbages died for lack of water. The soybeans I planted last year never got harvested. Now, all the vegetables we eat are store bought, even though the vegetables we grew ourselves were the tastiest and the sweetest, because they were grown with farmyard manure and no chemical fertilizers were put on them.

All the apricot trees on the hills died. And if they didn’t die, any apricots on them are just like dried-up little soybeans. Once upon a time they were as big as a ten cent coin (1 inch), and as for the walnut trees, a few really flourished in all of the creeks. Now all the walnut trees have disappeared, and if there are any still alive, it’s only the trunks that are left and all the branches have died. Before 1980, we never took water with us when we went up into the mountains because all the little creeks had spring water bubbling out of them. Now, wherever you go, you have to take water as the creeks have all dried up.

Have a look at the houses in our village; all the ones built above the row of Chinese scholar trees (Huaishu) are old, and all the ones below the trees are new homes – they have been built nearly to the edge of the river. Who would have dared to build there in earlier years? Now it hasn’t rained for I don’t know how long, and on top of that there are dams and reservoirs blocking the water off upstream – Zhaitang, Weizishui, Zhuwo, and Guanting reservoirs – so no matter how much it rained the river wouldn’t rise, and that’s why the area near the river is now covered in houses.

In the village we reckon that we use well water, but in fact it’s water from theYongding River. The Great Officials’ Well (Da guan jing), as it was called, used to be the main well in the village, it’s over there near the corner store. It was dug down to the river water table, so it’s five metres deep, and the water was winched out. But later when there was less water in the river, the well dried up. There was no choice but to dig another well at the edge of the river, into which concrete pipes were sunk. That well was also pretty shallow, and water could be lifted out with just a carrying pole and bucket. But, once we received running water, the well was filled in. Our running water also comes from a well dug next to the river, where it is pumped to the surface and then put into a water tank – it’s all water from the Yongding River. However, the water we get now is dirty and not as good as it used to be, because it encrusts things with scale.

If the drought continues, even the people living in mountainous areas will be totally parched. All the villages these days are digging deep wells; Yinma’an and Yanchi villages have already got them. It’s because they have no water in Yinma’an, and because the water they had in Yanchi didn’t meet standards when tests were done. In his earlier term of office, our previous village head reported that the water in the Henantai was also below standard, and that a well was needed. When the new village head[3] came into the position, he didn’t bother to do anything about the issue. Meanwhile, the Party secretary’s word is law. But the Party secretary bought a house in Mentougou town and, after retiring from office, he got on his horse and raced off there. So the ordinary people simply had nowhere to turn. I feel that we should take advantage of the “build new socialist villages” policy and grab the opportunity to get a deep well dug. It would be underground water, and better than river water.

However, the well in Yanchi is actually too deep, so just getting a little water out of it costs a lot in electricity. If it were just for drinking there would be enough, but these days, with everyone having baths, washing and scrubbing, people are using too much water. But moving people who live in the north down to the south wouldn’t be a solution either.

Author’s Commentary:

Henantai is a small village on the middle reaches of the Yongding River in Mentougou District. Wang Yongsen’s ancestors established the village of Henantai in the Qing Dynasty, where they have lived ever since. During the resistance against the Japanese invasion of China, he and his father fled to Hebei Province, returning to Henantai Village in 1950.

We know from eyewitness accounts, that as the climate has become drier in the last 30 years, there has been a decrease in the amount of water in the river, and an increase in pollution. Henantai’s ecosystem as well as farmers’ living conditions and ability to grow food have changed a great deal. Trees that were economically important in the area, such as apricots and walnuts, have become unproductive to the point that they are dying, dry farming is disappearing, irrigated farming is prohibitively expensive, and domestic water use, even just for drinking, is in imminent crisis. The prospect of “having no water to drink on the edge of a river”[4] is a serious problem.

People in a position to directly observe the situation on the land are of the opinion that decreasing rainfall is the main reason for the lack of water, and meteorological data bears this out. Since records started being kept, Beijing’s annual average precipitation amounted to 630 millimetres a year, but after 2000 this dropped to less than half that amount.

But instead of contracting when rainfall decreased, human activity and irrigated agriculture along the Yongding River has increased. According to 1995 statistics, 267 dams of different sizes were built in the upper reaches of the Yongding River between the 1950s and the 1990s. The area of land under irrigation expanded to 5.4 million mu of land. In addition, a number of industries were developed, all of which require a high level of water consumption, such as mining, smelting, electricity generation and chemical manufacturing. The water flowing into the Guanting Reservoir decreased from nearly 2 billion cubic metres of water annually to 400 million cubic meters in the 1990s. In 2006, only 41 million cubic metres of water flowed into the reservoir, and it stored only one hundred million cubic metres of water – not even a tenth of what it was designed to store. It is so dry that the bottom of the reservoir is visible.

Right at the source of the Yongding River at Shentou Springs, a 1.37 million kilowatt hydroelectric power station has been built – the Shentou Electricity Power Plant – transmitting power to Beijing, Tianjin and Tangshan area. Water from Shentou Springs is also used to wash coal from the Pingshuo coalmine, China’s largest open-cut mine. On top of that there are 17 electric pumping stations in this area, irrigating more than 40,000 hectares of agricultural land. Even in Wang Yongsen’s mountain village of Henantai, irrigation and tap water is provided.

As water volume in the Yongding River has decreased, water quality has continuously declined. A serious rise in the level of organic matter and fertilizer runoff in the water is likely the reason why people in Henantai report their water “encrusts things with scale.” The water pollution comes mainly from direct effluents of household sewage and upstream industrial wastewater. After 1997, water quality in the Yongding River deteriorated to Grade 5, and was no longer used as a source for Beijing’s drinking water; it could only be used for industrial purposes. Beijing’s Water Bureau announced in 2007 that after several years of improved management, water in the Yongding River had generally become drinkable once again, but Beijing still does not use water from YongdingRiver as a source of potable water.

My Home and Water: A People‘s Account

Beijing, once famous for its sweet spring water and clear-flowing rivers is now infamous for its polluted canals and dried up riverbeds. My Home and Water: A People‘s Account provides a rare uncensored glimpse of life and water in the ancient capital of Beijing and surrounding areas – as told by longtime residents.

Translation, editing and online publication of the series by Chinese author Dai Qing and Probe International has been made possible by funding from the Open Society Institute. For more information, contact Probe International at

[1]In the story of “Journey to the West,” the head of Fengxian prefecture behaved improperly so he was punished by the Jade Emperor with a drought lasting many years. The rains did not return until the head of the prefecture apologized to the Jade Emperor.

[2] In 1998.

[3] Normally, in China’s rural villages, there is a village head and a party boss: the former is in charge of village business, while the latter is in charge of party affairs. The latter usually has more power.

[4] Because of diminished flow or because the water has been polluted. Here, the author is being ironic.

Categories: Beijing Water

Tagged as: ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s