Beijing Water

PI Exclusive: The Yongding River’s lavish funeral

(February 24, 2011) Beijing-based water expert Wang Jian recounts how decades of environmental degradation have dried up Beijing’s “Mother River.”

In an exclusive article translated by Probe International, Beijing based water expert Wang Jian details the decline of the once powerful Yongding River.  Wang claims that the government’s efforts to artificially rehabilitate the Yongding are nothing more than a “lavish funeral,” which will do nothing to revive the long dry river.  He argues that the only way to restore the much needed water flow is to end the upstream water diversions and unchecked development along the riverbanks that created the problem in the first place.

By Wang Jian

The Yongding River is traditionally referred to as Beijing’s mother river. It used to be a powerful river, considered to be the city’s largest source of flood threats. But Beijing’s rapid development, combined with reckless water diversion projects has lead to a dramatic decline in the water level since the 1950s. The river has been nearly dry since 1992.

Before the 1950s, floods occurred frequently in the Yongding River.  In order to protect Beijing from floods, the government built the Guanting reservoir in 1949. At that time, the average annual inflow to the reservoir was as much as 2 billion cubic meters. Now the average annual inflow is less than 100 million cubic meters.

The Yang, Hongtang, and Qingshui rivers–all tributaries of the Yongding River– have dried up.  Even the Guishui River, which also empties into the Guanting Reservoir, is drying up.

The “Sanquanwan” (Three Springs Bay) in the upper reaches of the Yongding River was well known for gushing day and night. The water used to gush upwards of a meter into the air. Now there is only one spring left, gushing only 10 cm high.

So, where has the water gone?

It turns out that there are two big “water tigers” in the nearby area of the “Sanquanwan.” Shentou No 1 and Shentou No 2, (both large themal power plants), drink as much as 50,000 cubic meters of water combined every day. There are other power plants in Yongding valley, such as Datong No 1, Datong No 2, Xinghe Power Plant, Xiahuayuan Power Plant, and Shalingzi Power Plant.  Every year, as much as 100 million cubic meters of the groundwater is pumped for the Shalingzi Power Plant alone. Other water intensive industries such as coal mining, chemical production, steel, metallurgy, building materials, and pharmaceuticals, are everywhere along the Yongding valley in general and its upper reaches and its tributaries in particular.

Worse still, about 267 reservoirs had been built upstream of the Yongding River in an arbitrary fashion, contributing to the river’s demise by changing the natural process of water diffusion, and blocking water supply for the river course, lakes and springs downstream.

The sharp decline in surface and river water, plus falling water tables, have been environmentally devastating to the .  It has also increased costs of production for local industry, and has been a major burden for local residents.

Ma Guilin, 58-year-old, lives in the river source area of the Yongding in Ningwu County of Shanxi Province. He lamented the passing of the days when water was plentiful.

“In the past, almost every household in my village had their own well, but now, you see, all of them dried up because they’re not so deep. Without water, we have no choice but to find deeper wells to fetch water, no matter how far. We cannot afford to build deep wells on our own, because they’re too expensive, at least 2,000 yuan (RMB) for one of them!”

“In the past, we watered crops simply by using the water from the river, but now we can’t.  We’re even growing the crops in the riverbed, where there is no water at all. So we’re pumping water from the ground. You know, the cost of electricity for pumping water is really expensive for us.”

“Before the 1970s, we had no color TV, refrigerator, stereo, nor cell phones, motorcycles or cars, but we had the most crystal-clear river water, clean air, blue skies, white clouds, bright sun, and big snows in winter and plentiful rainfalls in summer.”

“At that time, the Mayinghai was so beautiful, with clear water, reeds stretching as far as the eye could see, flocks of wild ducks not afraid of people at all, kids catching fish and shrimps in the water and picking up eggs in the grass. At that time, various sized lakes were full of water,” Ma Guilin said.

“When studying at the Ningwu High School in 1964, I still remembered that summer: the Hui River was full of water and flowing cheerfully, almost everyone enjoyed this time, with women washing clothing under the tree, and kids swimming and playing in the river, screaming and laughing for joy, what a joyful time it was! In the wetlands outside the Nanmen (South Gate, in Shanxi Province), a variety of birds sang from morning to night, like a birds’ concert. Big willow trees rallied along the riverbank on both sides, and reeds below the trees were so many and so thick that no one could get through, let alone close to the river. A variety of animals as well as plants were everywhere, such as roe deer, wild boar, pheasant, wild strawberries, cherries, apricots, mountain leeks and so forth.”

“In those years, economic development was fast, but the environment was getting worse, much worse than before! Sandstorms became stronger and fiercer year after year, snow less and less, and rain less and less. The sky was always gray, while rivers dried up, fish disappeared, shrimp vanished, and sand and fly-ash were everywhere.”

“To make more money, the boss of a coal company was digging here and there, and then ran away after breaking the path of a mountain spring, leaving more than 600 people in Xiaomuchang Village with no water to drink at all.”

“With the Hui River dried-up, local residents treat the river course as a landfill by dumping everything in it! The Hui Bridge, you see, had 20 openings in it, but only three of them are left now. I believe those three will be filled up with garbage within two years!”

“To make the situation worse, the river course has not only been destroyed by dredging sand here and there, but it has almost been totally occupied by various buildings such as residential buildings, factories, and even parking lots for coal trucks. So what I’m worried about most is that people living along the valley, together with all the buildings, will be completely washed away by big floods some day!”

The comments made by Ma Guilin confirmed a series of changes taking place in the upper reaches of the Yongding River over those years.

The Guanting reservoir provides a good illustration of the watershed’s decline. With a storage capacity as much as 4.16 billion cubic meters, currently, the reservoir has only an average annual inflow of a low 100 million cubic meters, only one-fortieth of the total storage capacity. The substantial decline of water from upstream is apparently responsible for this. Although the municipal government built the Heituwa (black land depression) wetland purification project, the Guanting reservoir is still unable to supply water for Beijing because the volume of water in the Guanting Reservoir is too low.

To complicate the situation, a number of golf courses have been built along the river course because of a lack of irrigation water further inland. The groundwater is being extracted to irrigate golf courses. The water shortage in the Guanting reservoir, and severe over-exploitation of groundwater, has severely damaged the ecosystem of the Yongding River.

To deal with the situation, the state spent a great deal of money — 4.914 billion RMB or US$750 million — in 2006 on transferring water from the Wanjiazhai Reservoir on the Yellow River, providing water for the upper reaches of the Yongding River.

Moreover, to address Beijing’s urgent water needs, the state took emergency measures to transfer water from the Cetian reservoir in Datong of Shanxi Province, and reservoirs such as Youyi, Huliuhe, Xiangshuibao and Yunzhou in Hebei Province.

Now, the municipal government of Beijing is spending 17-billion-yuan (US$2.5-billion) to make the Yongding River flow again. According to the plan, a 170 kilometer ecological development zone will be created to divert water into the Yonding from 6 connected lakes. Rather than addressing the causes of the Yongding River’s drying, the government has decided to turn the Yongding into an artificial river.

The project is being questioned by Chinese media. The plan to build this artificial river is the longest, largest and most expensive in China’s history. Once completed, the ecologically ambitious project won’t do anything to help the water shortage upstream.

I believe this is a “lavish funeral” for the Yongding River organized by the municipal government. The cost will be roughly 100 million yuan per kilometer — almost equal to the cost of building a one-kilometer long urban light rail or subway in Beijing. This doesn’t include the badly needed investment in sewage treatment plants to recycle 130 million cubic meters of water.

Bear in mind: the Yongding River is one of the country’s four rivers most vulnerable to flooding. Once the floods occur, the multi-billion dollar landscape will be destroyed.

The issue goes beyond the costs. No matter how much the government spends on artificial rivers, it won’t make up for the demise of the mother river. People in Beijing have a special attatchment to the Yonding. They don’t want to replace the once vital Yongding with another lifeless artificial river.

The drying of the Yongding River has led to droughts, sand storms, and lost lives. We have already spent staggering amounts of money on artificial lakes, but it has not helped the Yongding valley. To restore the natural ecology of the Yongding River, diverting waters in the upper reaches must be stopped, and unchecked occupation of the riverbed along the valley as a whole must be stopped.

The upper reaches of the Yongding River were the source of Nihewan ancient men, and the Yongding River was home to 3,000 years of urban civilization of Beijing. The Yongding River does not deserve to die this way.  It is hard to imagine a Beijing without the Yongding River.

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