Beijing Water

Beijing’s water crisis unabated, neighbours pay the price

(July 20, 2010) Toronto / Beijing: Beijing’s water crisis remains unabated says a new report tracking where water to China’s capital city is sourced from.

Report authors Probe International Fellow Dai Qing and Executive Director Patricia Adams found that not only is Beijing continuing to pump more of its precious groundwater than can be replenished by rainfall and seepage, it is now draining neighbouring provinces of their water too.

After completing an update of their 2008 Beijing’s Olympic Water Crisis Report that documented, for the first time, the rapid rate at which China’s capital city was depleting its water supply, the environmental authors now call the situation “dire”.

According to their report, Beijing’s water deficit grew to almost 900 million cubic metres in 2006 and 600 million cubic metres in 2007—the deficit represents water pumped from the city’s groundwater and aquifers that cannot safely be recharged, as well as diversions from neighbouring provinces. Years of over-pumping have caused Beijing to sink by 0.8 metres and the city’s water table to fall 24 metres below sea level, from 11 metres below sea level a  decade ago.

Unusually high rainfall levels in 2008, the year of the Olympics, alleviated the situation somewhat, but early figures for 2009 suggest Beijing is, again, suffering from a water deficit.

Though more water is being recycled in the city and the price of water has risen— which has spurred innovative conservation and rainwater harvesting solutions in the real estate and development industry—the city is still falling well short in its efforts to avoid draining its watershed, say Dai Qing and Ms. Adams.

By 2008, water in the city’s two main reservoirs, Guanting and Miyun, was a mere 15 percent of their original capacity—with Guanting being virtually dry. In the last year, Miyun’s water level has dropped a further 20 percent.

Two of the city’s five deep aquifers are also thought to be dry.

Beijing, once famous for its sweet-tasting and abundant water, today has so little water that each Beijing resident has an estimated 210 cubic metres of available water per year—1/40th of the world average, and down from 230 cubic metres three years ago. Over the past 20 years, the city’s per capita water availability has dropped by a third.

To help stave off disaster, Beijing ramped up its diversion of water from neighbouring provinces Hebei and Shanxi: those two provinces now supply at least eight percent of Beijing’s water—up dramatically from less than half a percent in 2006.

“Beijing is now exporting its water crisis to its neighbours,” says Ms. Adams.

Government officials are also forging ahead with their plans for the massive water transfer scheme, known as the South North Water Diversion project, designed to channel at least 30 billion cubic metres of water annually from the Yangtze basin over 2000 kilometres to Beijing and Tianjin. The cost of $62 billion for doing so dwarves even the Three Gorges dam on the mega-project scale.

The resettlement of at least 330,000 people living around the Danjiangkou reservoir, where water for Beijing will be collected and then channelled along the central route of three routes, has begun in earnest so that water can be delivered to the nation’s capital by 2014. Authorities warn that this resettlement operation will be even more “demanding” and intense than the Three Gorges dam resettlement of 1.4 million people that took place over 10 years.

Opposition to both the short-haul and long distance water transfers to Beijing is growing. Blame for Beijing’s water crisis lies with unaccountable officials who for years have allowed, and promoted, unrestrained pollution of precious surface water and degradation of the watershed, say Dai Qing and Ms. Adams.

“Cheap water policies also stunted innovations and investments in conservation, and watershed transfers by decree have only helped to lull Beijing’s residents into thinking the crisis could be endlessly abated at any cost by bigger and more spectacular engineering projects.”

They claim that although Beijing has much work to do to restore its watershed and live within its water means, the goal is achievable. Demand for water should be reduced using the rule of law and economic incentives, rather than diverting water from further away or digging deeper into Beijing’ s groundwater reserves.

“Make the polluter pay, make the consumer pay, and enforce the laws on the books,” argue Dai Qing and Ms. Adams.

The key to the recovery of Beijing’s watershed lies with its citizens and a recent public opinion survey shows that those citizens are eager to get involved.

According to a survey and petition released just last month by China’s oldest environmental organization, Friends of Nature, three-quarters of the 803 Beijing residents interviewed say they are very concerned about the capital city’s water and blame pollution and the overexploitation of water for the crisis. More than 90 percent said they want the government to promote the use of recycled water and are prepared to install recycling facilities in their homes.

They are also in favour of a step-metering tariff system to make consumers pay more per unit for water as they consume more.

Meanwhile, extravagant water users, such as spas and golf courses, should be restricted, the respondents argue. Rather than draining more water from Beijing’s aquifers or diverting more water from distant rivers and other watersheds, the majority of respondents say Beijing’s existing supplies should be more efficiently used. And a majority said they want to participate in public hearings to discuss the price of water in future.

Resource management by decree has led to massive mistakes that are now obvious in Beijing, say Dai Qing and Ms. Adams. “The rule of law, public oversight, and market discipline to ensure accountable water management is the only thing that will save Beijing now.”

Press, Probe International, July 20, 2010

Probe International’s updated 2010 Beijing Water Crisis report can be found here.

Further Reading

Water schemes tamper with nature’s design

Sweltering north China in line for relief today

Beijing Getting Thirsty

Power use peaks

Beijing’s daily water supply reaches historic high

Thirsts quenched in water supply record

Probe International’s Beijing Water Oral Histories can be found here.

For news, reports, background sources, and oral histories on Beijing’s water crisis visit Probe International’s website here.

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