Beijing Water

A river will run through it: project seeks to restore the Yongding River in Beijing

Brady Yauch
Probe International
March 18, 2010

Officials in Beijing have approved a plan to rebuild the once-flowing Yongding river in the southwest corner of the city. According to reports, officials have agreed to spend 17-billion RMB ($2.48-billion) to construct an ecosystem of interconnected creeks and lakes.

Project plans rest on the hope of creating an “ecological development zone” for the city; a zone that will extend for 170 kilometres and cover 1,500 square kilometres by 2014. Recent reports say the project will “add 1,000 hectares of water surface space and 9,000 hectares of vegetation to the city.”

The Beijing Water Authority says the Yongding River needs about 130 million cubic metres of water to “recharge” it—with 80 percent of this water expected to be reclaimed water and the other 20 percent drawn from rain and floodwater.

The plan to revitalize Beijing’s river system comes after decades of pollution, bad policy and over-use that have drastically altered what used to be called the ‘mother river’. At one point, this river was the capital city’s biggest reservoir, but has undergone a long “drying” period since the 1970s.

The Yongding River is one of the main tributaries in the Haihe River system, making its way through the Mentougou, Shijingshan, Fengtai, Fangshan and Daxing districts.

Although Beijing has experienced a decades-long drought, industrial and agricultural activity during that time has grown exponentially—increasing the strain on the city’s water resources.  According to Probe International, 267 dams of different sizes were built in the upper reaches of the Yongding River between the 1950s and 1990s, while 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 required a high level of water consumption, such as mining, smelting, electricity generation and chemical manufacturing.

As the amount of water in the river decreased, the quality of the remaining water has seriously declined. In 1997, the water quality in the Yongding River had 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. But in 2007, Beijing’s Water Bureau announced that after several years of improved management, water from the Yongding River was, for the most part, drinkable again. In spite of this, Beijing still does not draw on the river as a source of potable water.

The decline in the health of the Yongding is part of a larger deterioration of the city’s wetlands. According to China Daily, Beijing has 5.14 million sq m of wetlands—accounting for just over three percent of the city’s total coverage. In 1960, this figure was 15 percent.

Wang Jian, a water specialist with Green SOS, an NGO based in Beijing, supports the project to revitalize the Yongding.

“The 100 million cu m of water that will be contributed to the city’s underground water system is huge for Beijing,” said Jian. And the sand storms that trouble residents every spring due to the city’s exhausted ‘mother river’ should soon be a thing of the past, he added.

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