Beijing Water

Can the South-North water diversion project save North China?

Zhou Xifeng and Long Tao reporting from Hebei (Province)
Red Net (Hongwang) and Xiaoxiang Evening News (Xiaoxiang chenbao), Translated by Probe International
May 18, 2010

Posted by Red Net (Hongwang) and Xiaoxiang Evening News (Xiaoxiang chenbao) (based in Hunan Province, south of Hubei Province, from where the water at the Danjiangkou reservoir is being pumped), April 23, 2010

Falling water tables in North China [fn]North China mainly refers to Hebei, Beijing and Tianjin, though “North China Plain” can also be used, but it is a much bigger area, including Hebei, Beijing and Tianjin, part of Henan, Anhui, Jiangsu, Shandong, Shanxi provinces, as well as part of Inner Mongolia.[/fn] resulted in the creation of the world’s largest subsidence funnel. According to an official report, overexploitation of groundwater in the past 50 years, amounting to 120 billion cubic meters of water and equivalent to 200 Lake Baiyangdians in Hebei Province, has led to the creation of the funnel in North China—Hebei, Beijing and Tianjin included.

“In fact, the real situation may be more serious,” said an expert who preferred to remain anonymous. He estimates the amount of groundwater actually overdrawn in North China is closer to 200 billion cubic meters.

Residents in North China struggling to maintain their livelihoods hope the South-North water diversion project, currently under construction, will provide a new source of water and solve the region’s decades’ old supply crisis. Yet the question remains: will the water diversion project save North China?

Lake Baiyangdian ran dry dozens of times

Praised as the “Pearl of North China,” Lake Baiyangdian (see here and here) is not only the largest freshwater lake in the region, it is one of few left with water still in it. Home to a range of birds and aquatic life, Baiyangdian plays a vital role for surrounding areas: as well as helping to maintain the ecological balance, it serves as a source of groundwater renewal, which helps to explain why Baiyangdian is also known as the “Kidney of North China.”

However, rampant overexploitation of groundwater has resulted in a series of environmental crises in North China—ranging from ecological deterioration, land subsidence, formation of underground funnels, drying up of wetlands and lakes and seawater intrusion. Currently, as many as 20 funnel regions covering an area as large as 50,000 square kilometers have been identified in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei on the North China Plain.

Over-exploitation has also resulted in Lake Baiyangdian drying up dozens of times since the 1960s.  Beginning in the 1950s, following Mao Zedong’s call to “permanently harness the Hai River,” more than 100 reservoirs were built on nine rivers upstream from Lake Baiyangdian[fn]The Hai River does not feed directly into Lake Baiyangdian, rather, its tributaries feed into the lake. The Hai River empties to the Bohai Sea. In other words, the lake is within the Hai River valley or basin.[/fn]. Nearly all of these rivers essentially ran dry as a result of irrigation and evaporation.

By the year 2000, all major rivers in the Hai River basin [fn] The Hai River basin is a massive area, covering Beijing, Tianjin and part of Hebei. The Baiyangdian Lake, in comparison, is small—similar Lake Dongting in the Yangtze valley. Here the author is talking about the Hai River basin, with Lake Baiyangdian being just a very small place within it.[/fn] had been tapped for the creation of more than 1,900 large and medium-sized reservoirs—of these, 31 large reservoirs with a total storage capacity of 29.4 billion cubic meters control 95% of runoff in the Hai River valley. Reservoir construction, used to supply water and to provide both flood control and electricity—coupled with a reduction in rainfall and less water from upstream sources—has turned what were once main rivers in the North China Plain region into seasonal rivers, some of which run dry all year long.

In an effort to pump more water into Lake Baiyangdian, the Ministry of Water Resources teamed up with Hebei Province to launch a water transfer plan to divert water from the Yuecheng Reservoir—located on the border of Cixian County in Hebei Province and Anyang County in Henan Province—to Baiyangdian Lake. While the project raised Baiyangdian’s water level to around 7.3 metres, it did so at a cost 24.5 million yuan RMB, with construction lasting a few months from the end of 2003 until February of 2004.

The diversion wasn’t enough to keep water above the 7-metre mark for long. The lake was taking in less water from upstream, and high levels of evaporation were robbing Baiyangdian of more than 1500 mm annually. To prevent the lake from running completely dry, officials decided to divert water from other basins, including the Yellow River.

On January 23, 2010, a third attempt to divert water from the Yellow River (the first and second attempt happened in 2007 and 2008, respectively) to Lake Baiyangdian succeeded: the lake’s water level rose from 6.98 metres to 7.54 metres, increasing storage capacity from 89.8 million cubic metres to 160 million cubic metres—the highest water level and storage capacity Baiyangdian had achieved in years.

Although the diversion prevented the lake from running dry and helped to maintain the area as an attraction for tourists, residents in the area knew water from the Yellow River was too dirty to drink.

For a thirsty province like Hebei, transferring water from other basins to keep Lake Baiyangdian going did not suffice as a permanent solution. The decades long history of water transfers to the lake show that they are not enough to prevent it from running dry.

Nonetheless, to keep water flowing to the lake, Hebei officials are now working on a secondary project, attached to the central route of the South-North Water Diversion Project. Experts in Hebei believe that by 2014, on completion of this major water project, even if no water from the south is directly sent to the lake, but rather to surrounding ponds, reservoirs and rivers, Lake Baiyangdian will benefit. The result, they believe, will keep North China’s “kidney” working properly and prevent its outright “failure.”

But according to Wei Zhimin, a water expert in Hebei, the S-N water project, while helping to promote economic development, will not solve North China’s ongoing water crisis. Rather, North China should aim to live within the means of its own watershed by promoting programs that spur water conservation, pollution control, the use of recycled water and other new sources of water.

The following is an interview with Wei Zhimin, a water expert and advisor to the Hai River Water Resources Commission, based in Tianjin, under the Ministry of Water Resources [fn] The Hai River Water Resources Commission has the same status as the Wuhan-based Changjiang (or Yangtze) Water Resources Commission.[/fn] and has 50 years of working experience flood control.

Reporter: How significant is the South-North Water Diversion project for Hebei Province and North China as a whole?

Wei: Lifeline is one word to describe it. And by lifeline I mean a lifeline for North China, Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei included. Let me give you some figures. The three provinces and municipalities (Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei) in the Hai River basin could provide their residents with only 1/24 of the world’s per capita average water consumption to their residents and only 1/7 of China’s per capita average between 1956 to 2000. According to international standards, water supply less than 1,000 m3 per capita is identified as serious shortage (of water) while less than 500 m3 per capita is labeled an extreme shortage of water.

Reporter: The Hai River basin ran out of water in just half a century. What are the major reasons for that?

Wei: Population growth, economic development and water consumption far greater than the local water renewal capacity have all contributed to the problem.

In the 1950s and 1960s, water consumption was only 4 billion m3 in Hebei Province, with 23.5 billion m3 coming from surface runoff and groundwater plus 10 billion m3 of water flowing in from surrounding provinces. Currently, however, it’s hard for locals to access safe water to drink—as they often have to deal with sub-standard surface water and contaminated groundwater. Plus, at least 100 billion m3 of groundwater has been tapped beyond its recharge rate in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei.

As a result, both production and economic development are adversely affected, with industry and agriculture severely restricted. Citizens’ livelihoods have also been affected. In the event of an extreme drought, the province of Hebei has no choice but to guarantee water supply for domestic water use in Hebei by limiting water supply for industrial use, and for agricultural use in particular.

That’s why I said the S-N water project is a lifeline for North China. If the water from the central leg of the water diversion project is of good quality then it will meet the needs for domestic use in Beijing, Tianjin, and the central and southern regions of Hebei. Plus, with water for industrial use guaranteed by the S-N project, the urban environment would become better and better, as increased water from the project means more water for trees, grass and other urban landscape features. The water delivered from the south will help relieve pressure on the ever-diminishing local groundwater, and hopefully allow the water table to rise again. This will help not only the recovery of the groundwater system, but be beneficial to the environment in the North China as a whole.

Will land subsidence cause earthquakes?

As you just mentioned, the environment is deteriorating in Hebei. Can you give me examples?

Wei: The biggest challenge we face is the effect of the lack of water on the environment as a whole. In the past, for instance, soil was wet, and it wasn’t easily blown away by the wind. But now, with the soil being so dry, only sand is left, and with a wind it eventually becomes the source of dust ‘storms’.

Reporter: I’m wondering if the land subsidence caused by the overexploitation of groundwater is likely to trigger something more serious, seismic activities for instance?

Wei: I don’t think this kind of land subsidence is related to earthquakes. Currently the deepest earth subsidence occurred in Tianjin—more than 3 metres deep. In Hebei Province, the deepest earth subsidence occurred in Cangzhou—as deep as 2.2 metres. After the incidents of the land subsidence, the earth surface cracked, buildings cracked and even tilted, underground pipes cracked, some even broke, and so on.

Reporter: But when interviewed, residents in some villages (in Hebei) told me that they had no problem with the shortage of water. As they put it, there was plenty of water underground.

Wei: They do not know how plentiful water resources were in the 1950s and 1960s, and they don’t realize how many lakes and ponds that were once full of water are now dry. Young people in particular have gotten used to the current environment because they have no sense of the past. Half a century ago, for instance, every river (in Hebei) was navigable with sailing boats, and it was easy to get water from underground by digging less than one meter.

Reporter: But they did complain that the water was polluted.

Wei: Yes, it’s true the worst part of the water problem is pollution. The less water is available, the harder it is to have the pollution diluted. It is easy to pollute 1 m3 of water and it’s really hard to dilute it, as maybe ten to twenty times of water is needed to do so. The dirtier the water, the greater the affect is has on peoples’ lives. So this is why I’m saying the S-N water project is a “lifeline” for North China.

Reporter: Do you believe the S-N water project can solve the water crisis in North China?

Wei: No. From my point of view, we need to control water pollution and take measures that promote water conservation in a major way. Only after doing so can we use rain and flood waters, recycled water and seawater through desalination.

Reporter: Why don’t we use more seawater through desalination?

Wei: Currently it’s not realistic because the cost of desalination is very high—as much as 8 yuan RMB per m3 of desalinized water. [fn] Editors note: Probe International has translated an article, saying the opposite. Read it here.[/fn] If we can bring the cost down to 3 yuan RMB for per m3 (of desalinized water), it would be more or less the same as the price for the water from the S-N water project. Nevertheless, desalination is going to play a major role for Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei as they deal with their water crises in the future. Also, the cost of desalination would be significantly reduced if solar or wind power can be used in the future.

Reporter: But it was also said that the price of the water from the S-N water project would go up as high as 8 and even 10 yuan RMB per m3. If this is true, is there still a need to build the S-N water project?

Wei: You cannot say that for sure. As far as I know, the user fee for water collected by the S-N water authority won’t be higher than the current price for residential water use. The price for tap water in Beijing is almost 6 yuan RMB per m3 [fn] Editors Note: the integrated water price in Beijing is 5.03 yuan RMB per m3 now.[/fn], so even if the user fee for water from the S-N water project increases in the future, I don’t think it would exceed the current water price. It would definitely be unreasonable if the water price goes as high as 8 to 10 yuan RMB per cubic metres in the future. Actually, the price for water from the S-N water project has not yet been determined.

Reporter: Do you think the drought in southwest China will have impacts on the S-N water project?

Wei: No, I don’t think so. The water source for the central leg of the S-N water project draws from the upstream areas of Shaanxi and Hubei provinces, rather than the southwest. However, the project would be affected if a serious drought occured in Hubei and southern Shaanxi.

Reporter: Final question for you: Hebei Province is suffering the shortage of water a lot, why should Hebei give its own water to Beijing?

Wei: As you know, both Beijing and Tianjin are located in Hebei Province, so in terms of, not only the water supply, but flood control too, Beijing and Tianjin is always put before Hebei. If necessary, Hebei has no choice but to sacrifice itself, as we always have done before

For example, originally, Beijing and Hebei jointly built both the Miyun and Guanting reservoirs, for which Hebei had as much as 900 million m3 of water to use each year. By 1981, however, Beijing took over the two reservoirs due to its shortage of water. Nothing is left for Hebei anymore.

In the case of Tianjin, according to the original plan, some 500 million m3 of water from the “Luan River to Tianjin Water Diversion Project” was earmarked for Tianjin annually. But soon the amount of water doubled for Tianjin to as much as 1 billion. Before that, the Yuqiao Reservoir, with a storage capacity of 60 million m3, had been totally handed over to Tianjin (in 1973). Under such circumstances, Hebei has to buy water from the Yellow River from Weishan Sluice in Shandong Province at a cost of tens of millions of yuan every year. It is estimated that some 60 million yuan RMB will be spent by Hebei buying water from the Yellow River this year. [fn] Editors note: Mr. Wei means that Hebei is in tough spot, as it now has to buy water because Beijing and Tianjin have commandered water resources that were once available to Hebei.[/fn]

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