Beijing Water

How will Beijing cope with the delay of China’s south-to-north water diversion project?

Wang Jian and Liu Qiong
Probe International
April 12, 2010

According to the original plan, one billion cubic meters of water was to be taken from the Yangtze River every year and diverted to thirsty Beijing through the central canal of the massive South-North Water Diversion Project. The water was intended to arrive in Beijing in 2010, until last year, that is, when the project authority announced that the project would be postponed and the Yangtze’s waters would not arrive in Beijing until 2014. The four-year delay will intensify Beijing’s desperate water shortage, and accelerate the draining of the city’s rivers, reservoirs, water table, and aquifers.

Why is Beijing trying to transfer water 1267 km from the Yangtze watershed to its own?

With only 200m3 of water per capita, Beijing is one of the world’s most water-starved mega cities, supplying only 1/40 of the world’s average[fn]Wang Hongrui, Liu Changming and Mao Guangquan: The impact of water shortages on agriculture in Beijing and countermeasures. Journal of Natural Resources, 2004,19 (2):160-169[/fn] to its residents and only 1/10 of China’s average. Since 1999, Beijing and surrounding areas have experienced persistent drought, and the average annual precipitation between 1999 and 2007 was 464 mm, only 77% of the average between 1965 and 2000. Uneven distribution of precipitation over the capital’s watershed and over time, compounded by persistent drought, has increased Beijing’s water crisis[fn] Li Huian, Problems with water use and countermeasures in Beijing. Beijing Water, 2007, (6): 4-7[/fn] . The shortage of water has become the main factor limiting the socio-economic development of the capital.

Located in the Haihe basin, Beijing’s watershed includes five major rivers: the Jiyun, Chaobai, Beiyun, Yongding and Daqing from east to west. Altogether, there are some 200 large and small rivers, but most of them today run dry without any water. In terms of the quality of water, the upper reaches of the Chaobai River and the Juma River (which is a tributary of the Daqing) are relatively better than others, while the Beiyun and Jiyun rivers are seriously polluted. Based on data from the Beijing Hydrogeology and Engineering Geology Team, groundwater quality in suburban areas deteriorated rapidly, then stabilized, and more recently has gradually improved, due to a number of measures including the shutdown and relocation of some factories in the area and the retooling of others to reduce pollution discharges. Despite these improvements in some suburban areas, the quality of groundwater is deteriorating in other suburbs, such as Daxing and Fangshan.

Beijing’s water shortage crisis is made that much worse by the pollution of what little water it does have.

In half a century, Beijing has developed from being a consumers’ town to a major industrial city. Beijing’s role as the capital city and center of historical and cultural activity has given way to unfettered industrial development. This has introduced water-intensive enterprises, a rapid expansion of the population and the urban area, and made the water shortage worse and worse in the municipality.

The increased demand for water and the pollution of available supplies that has accompanied this growth over the last half century has lead to a sequence of crises and half-measures. To deal with the first crisis in the mid-1960s, the government built a diversion canal to transfer water from the Miyun Reservoir 113 kilometers north east of the city core into downtown Beijing; to ease the second crisis in the 1970s, the municipality dug deeper to tap groundwater beyond its recharge rate; to resolve the third water crisis in the 1980s, Beijing supplanted neighboring Hebei Province and Tianjin Municipality to get exclusive rights to the Miyun Reservoir. Then, in the 1990’s the situation grew more dire as Beijing was hit by nine years of consecutive drought between 1999 and 2007, with 2003 being extremely dry[fn] With only 435 mm of precipitation.[/fn]. Meanwhile, Beijing’s available water supplies grew more and more polluted as groundwater reserves dropped. Under such circumstances, the municipality decided to commandeer the water resources of neighboring provinces, Hebei and Shanxi by diverting water from the Cetian Reservoir in Shanxi and Youyi Reservoir in Hebei. By this time, Beijing’s water crisis required emergency measures.

The plan and the delay

In its relentless search for more water, Chinese authorities designed the central route of the South-North Water Diversion Project to divert water from the Yangtze River watershed to Beijing. According to the original plan, beginning in 2010, the project would supply Beijing with 1 billion m3 of water each year and increase that amount to 1.4 billion m3 yearly by 2020. The transferred water would be used mainly for domestic and industrial purposes. Because this represents about one-quarter of Beijing’s current water consumption, the scheme would have eased the state of desperation. But on Dec 6, 2008, the State Council announced that the project would be delayed until 2014.

The high costs of the massive water diversion scheme bite back

According to a May 12, 2009 report by the state news agency Xinhua, there are at least three reasons for the delay.

Since the water diversion project involves a large number of sub-projects and supporting projects, further feasibility studies are needed, in particular, of the plans and suggestions made by experts and local governments. The goal here is apparently to improve construction plans and reduce costs.

Second, due to increases in the price of commodities, the overall cost of the project has increased from 100 billion yuan RMB in 2002, when the project officially started, to more than 250 billion yuan today. Time was required to find additional funding for the project.

Third, land requisition and relocation of people affected by construction has proved challenging. To resettle people “better and properly,” a “people-oriented policy” has been implemented, with the standard of compensation increased from 10 times the per capita GDP in the region in 2000 to 16 times the regional per capita GDP in 2006. Authorities think that “additional work” needs to be done to improve the resettlement plan and more “education work” and “practical measures” should be taken to ensure that the relocation scheme goes “smoothly.”[fn]The authors are quoting a report from the official news agency, Xinhua. Essentially, “additional work” is needed because the affected groups are unhappy with the compensation and are unwilling to move. The so-called “education work” is used to persuade the public to do something the party or government wants them to do, and it usually includes propaganda, ideological education, face to face talks and even visits with the resistant households. {Promises might be made in order to achieve the goal – -get the people to move out. “Education work” was more successful in the Maoist era (there are so many cases of hydro dam related resettlement in the past that demonstrate this) but is not nearly so successful in the current market-oriented economic context: there are many collective protest actions against the government or real estate companies that are forcing people to move – every four minutes there is a protest of more than 100 people, according to The Guardian.  Nonetheless, the government still resorts to using the traditional method of “education work” to get its way. All Chinese readers of the Xinhua piece would know what it means. It is the Party’s philosophy that there is always a need to “educate” the public in general, and farmers in particular, so they will follow the Party’s will.[/fn]

While Beijing waits, the water crisis grows more dire

Now, the four-year delay in the delivery of water from the diversion scheme will aggravate the already desperate situation created by nine years of consecutive drought, lower reservoir levels, and declining groundwater reserves.

For example, the Yongding River, one of the largest rivers in Beijing, on the western side of the Municipality, has run virtually dry for years, with the riverbed often exposed and the land on both sides of the river desertified. And the 70 kilometer long river section downstream of Sanjiadian is much more serious, without any water all year long. The river ecosystem of Yongding has been severely damaged, not only because the Guanting Reservoir withholds water from the river itself, but also because of over-exploitation of underground water in the valley has made the problem much worse.

Meanwhile, due to the shortage of water and pollution, the Guanting Reservoir, which used to be one of the important drinking water sources for Beijing, stopped supplying water to the city in 1997. Measures (such as pollution controls and better land management) were taken to restore the Guanting Reservoir’s function as a reserve or alternate source of drinking water for Beijing, but the volume of water in it is so low – 170 million cubic metres or only 1/24 of its intended storage capacity of 4.16 billion cubic metres – that it is incapable of providing even a backup supply of water for Beijing.

The Chaobai River, on the eastern side of Beijing Municipality, is as important as the Yongding River in the west. But the Chaobai too has run dry for many years because the Miyun Reservoir has diverted water from it in order to supply Beijing city with water. As a result, the environment along the Chaobai valley has deteriorated, leaving riverbed gravel exposed, and sand scattered everywhere by the wind. To make the situation worse, groundwater exploitation at a faster rate than it can be replenished, has led to the emergence of a funnel[fn] Drawing down aquifers or deep groundwater (i.e. extracting water at a rate higher than its rate of recharge from precipitation) gives rise to descending funnels of deep groundwater and causes land subsidence.[/fn] as big as 1,665 square kilometers in the Zilaishui Bachang area.[fn] Also known as Beijing Water Works 8 Area.[/fn]

The Miyun Reservoir, which is crucial in providing Beijing with drinking water, is also suffering a shortage of supply. Miyun’s current volume of stored water is only 1.13 billion cubic meters, or about 1/4 of its total storage capacity. Of that, 400 million cubic meters is considered “dead storage,” leaving only 700 million cubic meters of water available for use.

To fill the gap between water supply and demand, Beijing is draining water at the expense of the environment, surrounding areas and populations, and groundwater reserves for the future. The status quo is a downward spiral with the city less and less able to cope with its water crisis, and with increasingly dire environmental consequences, including rapidly depleted groundwater and ensuing geological disasters, such as building collapses and ruptured water mains and pipelines.

What can Beijing do?

First and foremost, Beijing should aim to live within the means of its own watershed, and cease its policies of diverting water from other watersheds. Long-distance water transfer from other watersheds and the desalination of seawater should be considered only as a supplementary means to ease the temporary pressure of water crisis.

Second, policy-makers should develop a strategy for the recycling of water to ease the water shortage in a number of ways: for example, recycled water can be used not only in agriculture (ensuring the quality of agricultural products), industry and construction sectors, but in a variety of other uses such as public green spaces, golf courses, country parks, the urban environment, and soon. Now that water supply from the south has been delayed four years, Beijing should legislate the use of recycled water as soon as possible. Equally important, the municipal government should improve management of all water treatment facilities, with the implementation of a register for all enterprises operating water treatment facilities, and improve current operation through regular inspections and monitoring of all existing water facilities (including sewage, treatment, and recycling), increase personnel training, test the quality of recycled water regularly, and disclose these results to the public – making all polluters liable for contaminating water sources in the Beijing watershed.

Third, increasing efficiency in the use of water is the most promising way to protect Beijing from a worsening water crisis. This can be accomplished for all sectors including industry, household use and in particular, agriculture. For a long time, flood irrigation has been the method of choice in agriculture, and represents a huge waste of water resources, making the utilization coefficient of agricultural water as low as only 0.3 ~ 0.4 (i.e., only 30-40% of water delivered to fields is actually used). Drip irrigation and sprinkler irrigation has been introduced, but there is still much room for its expansion and for greater efficiencies to be accomplished in the agricultural sector. Water use efficiency in agriculture is much lower than in the industrial and tertiary sectors, so as the nation’s capital and a megacity troubled by water shortages, Beijing should concentrate especially on improving efficiencies in the agricultural sector[fn]Liu Yu, Wang Zhaofeng, Zhang Junbiao, An analysis on factors affecting the efficiency of water use in agriculture. Economic Issues, 2007 (6):75-77.[/fn]

Fourth, to encourage all of the efficiency improvements mentioned above, the pricing of water is the number one tool to reflect value and costs of treatment and delivery, and to provide all consumers with a clear signal about the scarcity of water in the Beijing watershed. Only with price signals will all consumers make the necessary investments in water-saving technologies, change their behaviour, and begin to use water efficiently. As the price of water increases, the demand for water will diminish, helping to curb the rate at which Beijing’s watershed is currently mined and the volume of water from other watersheds is diverted to the city. Therefore, raising the price of water by using a step-metering tariff system[fn] An inclining water price structure in which the fee per cubic meter increases as volume increases in predetermined increments: For example, in Beijing, water consumers will pay a certain fee for the first 12 cubic meters (called Grade One) consumed, and so on, with two more levels following. So, basic water needs can be met at the Grade One fee and consumers wishing to use more water will pay more as their consumption increases.[/fn] would be helpful to reduce the waste of water resources.

To protect groundwater resources, surface water conservation must be improved. This can be accomplished through a variety of measures including forest, grassland, and wetland restoration within the watershed. This will help restore the water cycle (between air, plant and grasses and surface water, soil and underground), retain moisture, rehabilitate key rivers and lakes in the area that have been drained and damaged, and ultimately recharge the groundwater in the area.

But if Beijing is to become a water efficient and self-sufficient city, the city’s residents and businesses will have to pay the full cost of the water they consume: this price must reflect the scarcity value of remaining reserves and include the cost of delivery and treatment.[fn]Concerns about the effect of full cost pricing for water on the poor are real and can be addressed by finding more direct ways to subsidize the poor, rather than through subsidized resource use.[/fn] If this is done, dire shortages will be averted, the watershed will slowly but surely recover, and the rationale for depopulating the capital will become obsolete.

Wang Jian is a water resources expert based in Beijing.

Liu Qiong is a researcher at the College of Water Science, Beijing Normal University.

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