Beijing Water

Beijing’s water consumption defies ongoing drought

Probe International
April 7, 2010

The number of businesses in Beijing that are using water lavishly continues to grow, despite a decades-long drought and a stressed watershed, say Chinese environmental researchers in a recent report.

“People in other countries have a kettle of water; people in China have a cup of water. But people in Beijing have a sip of water,” explained Hu Kanping, the deputy chief editor of the magazine, Environmental Protection, and the co-writer of the Annual Report on Environment Development of China, or Green Book 2010, as it is popularly known.

Each Beijinger has, on average, only 248 cu metres of water to use annually, well below the international guideline of 1000 cubic metres. Despite this extreme water shortage, the Green Report says that there has been an explosion of spas and bathhouses—both gluttons for water—in Beijing from 39 in 1989 to more than 3,000 today.

If all the 17 million residents in Beijing indulge themselves just once a month in public bathhouses, using 0.4 tons of water a time, the water used in bathing alone will be 81.6 million tons a year, says the Green Book. That’s equal to the water capacity of 41 Kunming Lakes, Beijing’s picturesque and historic lake at the centre of the Summer Palace.

“Bathers can pamper themselves with milk spas, flower spas, natural spring spas, lava rock spas, and fish spas that use tiny fish to nibble away dead skin,” says China Daily.

“The bathing industry has done nothing wrong,” says Mr. Hu, but the industry is “not suitable for a thirsty city like Beijing.”

But the bathing and spa industry isn’t alone in sucking up scarce groundwater.

For example, the city uses 80 to 100 million tons of water to flush its toilets per year. And Beijing boasts a huge car wash industry, with more than 9,000 car wash companies that use more than 30 million tons of water a year. All these functions could more frugally be done with recycled water.

Severe water shortages have spurred the drilling of new wells in the city to a point that the city is using groundwater faster than it can be recharged by rainfall, leading to “subsidence” or the sinking of the city. In 2009, Beijing consumed a total of 3.55 billion cu m of water, two thirds of which was underground water.

“In 1999 you could find water at an average level of 12 meters underground, but in 2008, you needed to dig 23 meters underground, says Wang Shan, a researcher at the Beijing Institute of Water.

Wang Jian, a water specialist with Green SOS, an NGO based in Beijing, said the use of underground water shouldn’t exceed 2.1 billion cubic metres a year to be sustainable.

“More than 2.1 billion cu m a year is over-exploitation of the underground water,” said Wang, who has studied the use of water in Beijing since the 1970s.

Unfortunately, Beijing is well past the 2.1-billion threshold: statistics from the Beijing Water Institute showed that between 1990 and 2005 the use of underground water ranged from 2.5-billion cu m to 2.7-billion, in effect “mining’ the city’s ground water.

To encourage conservation, Beijing has raised water prices for commercial and industrial use by 11 to 50 percent and by 24 percent for residential use.

Beijing has also adopted more desperate and expensive measures to fill its water deficit, such as diverting water from neighbouring Hebei and by building the gargantuan South-North Water Transfer canal to redirect water from the Yangtze River to Beijing. These schemes have angered hundreds of thousands of farmers who have been deprived of their water and are being forced to move to make way for the canals. Environmental researchers argue, instead, for price hikes to reflect the scarcity value of Beijing’s water and to encourage water recycling and conservation.

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