Beijing Water

Beijing’s never-ending thirst

Brady Yauch
Probe International
April 14, 2010

Ongoing delays to the South-North Water Diversion Project will defer the delivery of one billion cubic meters of water annually over the next four years to Beijing. Now, a number of analysts in Beijing are offering suggestions on how the city should cope with its water crisis. Wang Jian And Liu Qiong, two Beijing-based water experts, say the city must ease the subsidies for water consumption to ensure that the price reflects its true cost, while implementing policies that promote the recycling of water and efficient use.

All of these suggestions come as the city’s water situation continues to deteriorate.

According to Wang and Liu, Beijing is one of the world’s most water starved mega cities—supplying only 1/40th of the world’s average to its citizens and only 1/10th of China’s average. They say the water crisis has become the biggest obstacle in socio-economic development of the city.

Beijing has been suffering a drought for more than 25 years, but since 1999, it’s become more severe—with the average annual precipitation in Beijing and the surrounding areas 27 percent below the average between 1965 and 2000.  Although there are some 200 large and small rivers in the region, most them now run dry.

Compounding the drought has been increased demand from industrial development, resulting in a sequence of crises and half-measures. To deal with the first water crisis in the 1960s, officials approved the construction of canals, then in 1970s—after yet another crisis—they began tapping groundwater much faster than it could be replenished and by the 1980s Beijing claimed exclusive rights to the Miyun reservoir, supplanting neighbouring Hebei Province and Tianjin municipality to get it. In 1990s Beijing also began diverting water from the Ceotian Reservoir in the neighbouring province of Shanxi and the Youyi Reservoir in Hebei.

To no avail. The water crisis continued.

Officials eventually approved the central route of the South-North Water Diversion scheme—a massive water diversion scheme that has already begun to forcibly relocate 330,000 residents. Since it’s approval, the problems have continued to pile high. First, the complexity of the project created a number of sub-projects and supporting projects, which required feasibility studies and other suggestions by experts and local governments.

Meanwhile, the escalating costs of commodities was pushing up the overall price tag of the project. Wang and Liu say the overall cost increased from 100-billon yuan in 2002 to 250-billion yuan today—a 150% increase.

The relocation of hundreds of thousands of citizens is also proving to be more difficult, and expensive, than anticipated. Authorities now think “additional work” should be done to improve the resettlement plan. Originally, officials planned to compensate relocated citizens at amount equal to 10 times per capita GDP in 2006—it’s since been raised to 16 times per capita GDP.

As the problems piled up, the project’s completion date was pushed back four years to 2014.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s water crisis showed no signs of abating. According to Wang and Liu, the Yongding river in the west and the Chaobai River in the east, two of the largest rivers in the city region, now run dry. The Guanting Reservoir, which used to be one of the important sources of drinking water, no longer supplies water to the city, while the Miyun Reservoir, now crucial to the city’s current supply of drinking water, only holds a quarter of its total storage capacity.

Officials have been forced to tap groundwater at a blistering pace. According to our 2008 report, the Beijing municipality will need to continue pumping about three billion cubic metres of groundwater annually to keep up with the forecasted growth in demand—that’s 500 million cubic metres more than the annual allowable limit for “safe” extraction of groundwater.

Wang and Liu say the city needs to learn how to use water more efficiently and to live within the means of its own watershed and stop diverting water from neighbouring jurisdictions. They also suggest that Beijing officials should develop a strategy for recycling water, while setting up the necessary regulatory bodies to test the quality of recycled water and disclose these results to the public.

Most importantly, the price of water needs to reflect its scarcity.

“Only with price signals will all consumers make the necessary investments in water-saving technologies, change their behaviour, and begin to use water efficiently,” they write. “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.”

Read Wang and Liu’s article for more background on Beijing’s water crisis and what needs to be done to ease it.

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