Beijing Water

Drought at source

(May 20, 2011) China’s South-North Water Diversion project may have little water to spare for Beijing.

By Patricia Adams, Probe International

A record drought, which has caused water levels in China’s major reservoirs to decline, has hit the Danjiangkou reservoir on the Han River especially hard.

This is bad news for Beijing because, beginning in 2014, the Danjiangkou was supposed to begin diverting 9.5 billion cubic metres of water to the parched capital city. Originally built in the 1960s, the Danjiangkou dam is now being raised so it can store an additional 10 metres of water in its reservoir for the planned diversion.

But according to recent reports, the Dangjiankou now has 40% less water in it than it had a year ago, calling into question whether it could ever be relied upon to relieve Beijing’s water crisis.

The massive and controversial South-North Water Diversion project, which involves three
different routes to divert water from China’s “wet” south to its more northern arid regions, including Beijing, has been criticized by many for being too big, too expensive, too dirty, and too risky.

The massive project is expected to cost $62 billion, dwarfing even the over-sized Three Gorges dam. Meanwhile, seismologists have warned that if the reservoir is eventually filled to its intended height, it could trigger earthquakes that exceed magnitude 4 on the Richter scale.

The scheme has also caused civil unrest among some 300,000 people who are being resettled to make way for the higher dam with protests breaking out at resettlement sites causing injuries and arrests.

Meanwhile, critics can now add “too unreliable” to the list of problems facing the massive water diversion scheme. Without sufficient water inflows into the Danjiangkou Reservoir, Beijing will have to look more seriously at ways to protect and restore its own watershed, something environmentalists have been calling for.

Beijing is suffering from a chronic water deficit as it pumps some 500 million cubic metres from its groundwater and aquifers every year that is not being recharged through precipitation. This has caused the city to sink by 0.8 metres and the water table to fall 13 metres in the last decade, to 24 metres below sea level today.

Environmentalists argue that as long as the capital city can use political might to commandeer water from other regions of the country, it will never adopt the policies needed to get the city to use its water resources carefully and efficiently. These policies include: higher water prices, water trading, recycling and serious fines to eliminate pollution.

The demise of the Danjiangkou diversion might just be the wake-up call Chinese authorities need.

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