March 9, 2010
Beijing’s worsening water crisis is once again forcing its neighbouring province Hebei to sacrifice more of its dwindling reserves. According to a recent report from China Daily, Hebei is expected to open four of its reservoirs this year in an effort to help cover demand in the country’s water-starved capital.
“The temporary plan for Beijing to get water from the four reservoirs—two in Shijiazhuang and two in Baoding—will bridge the gap until the South-to-North water diversion project is completed in 2014,” the report says.
The water from Hebei will be channelled to Beijing through canals that will eventually become part of the much larger South-North Water Diversion project. This project, which will force the resettlement of 330,000 residents and cost an estimated $62-billion—nearly three times the official cost of the Three Gorges dam—is a massive undertaking to transfer supply from the water-rich south to the drought-prone areas of Northern China, especially Beijing.
But the capital’s current demand for water is forcing another round of water belt-tightening in Hebei. According to the report, around 43.5 million cu m of water was delivered to Beijing between Sept. 18, 2008 and July 25, 2009—at the same time, Hebei was facing its own water shortage of about 470 million cu m.
“We have to reduce water supply in Hebei to deliver water to Beijing,” an official surnamed Wu from the department of water resources in Hebei province said recently.
Wu added that much of the water in the reservoirs would be needed for irrigation.
Meanwhile, Hebei’s own water reserves are anything but healthy. Reports last year said that Hebei had overexploited its groundwater, causing subsidence and the formation of “20 hopper areas” of more than 40,000 square km.
“Water shortage has become a big problem facing the province’s social and economic development,” said Li Qinglin, director of Hebei’s water conservancy department. “Water resources in Hebei have dwindled by nearly 50 percent in recent years compared with that in the 1950s.”
He added that the province consumes between 20.5 billion and to 21.5 billion cubic meters water annually, but it has only 17 billion cubic meters of surface water, leaving groundwater to supply the margin.
A water conservancy expert said Hebei has overused 120 billion cubic meters of groundwater in 30 years since 1976.
Other reports say that farmers in Hebei are suffering because of the water transfers to Beijing.
“Hebei has long sacrificed its water needs to Beijing’s,” said an Economist article in 2008. “Some complain that this has exacerbated poverty in Hebei, forcing water-hungry and polluting industries to close and some farmers to forsake rice growing for less water-intensive but also less profitable maize. Compensation has been meagre.”
Ma Jun, director of the environmental NGO, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, also believes the city’s water demand will negatively affect Hebei. “Delivering water from Hebei had a high cost,” he says.
“Water is a serious problem for Hebei and diverting some to Beijing could pose significant challenges,” he added.
Ma’s solution is to implement water conservation policies and treat sewage. He says Beijing is wasteful with its water use and its treatment of sewage is insufficient. He believes that water from Hebei should be used as an emergency measure, and that residents from Beijing need to learn how to use their water more efficiently, or else the city will continue to out-consume supply.