Beijing Water

To the piste!

The constant stream of news coverage on China’s water crisis hasn’t dampened Beijing’s bid to host the 2022 winter Olympics and the production of a key, water-guzzling component of that bid: snow. The Economist reports.

Published by The Economist on January 24, 2015

The provincial outpost of Chongli, 250km (150 miles) north-west of Beijing, has all the trappings of a proper ski town. There are hotels, restaurants, shops offering the latest gear, and even a street of bars for the après-ski set. Chongli’s rapidly developing resorts may lack the striking vistas and the rich forest landscapes of the Alps or Rockies. But the scenery, if less grand, is nice enough. So is the skiing itself. Chongli’s drawback is that, as in much of China’s arid north, there is an acute shortage of water to make snow. But in their pursuit of prestige, government planners see that as little hindrance. Developing winter sports, say officials, is China’s “dream”.

Until the 1990s, winter sports in and around Beijing were largely confined to skating and, for a hardy few (mostly elderly men), swimming near-naked in pools cleared of ice. A lack of snow and, above all, of middle-class spenders, made skiing all but unthinkable. Now ski resorts abound on the hills near Beijing (the artificial snow is made with underground water) as well as across chillier and snowier regions. According to a Canadian study, the number of skiers in China grew from 10,000 in 1996 to 5m by 2010. The Chinese Ski Association believes there could now be 20m. Beijing is competing to host the winter Olympics in 2022. If it wins, Chongli will be one of the outlying venues.

Skiing remains too costly a pastime for ordinary folk. A day’s lift-ticket and gear rental costs 500 yuan ($80)—more than five days’ wages for the average migrant worker. In downtown Beijing, Gao Yong says it is mostly “big bosses and children of the nouveau riche” who buy from his ski shop. They do not fret about the cost. “They sometimes bring friends and buy them a full set of ski equipment just so they can take them out for a day,” Mr Gao says.

But the sport’s elitism is no deterrent to China’s Communist rulers. President Xi Jinping has expressed his “ardent hope” that Beijing will win its bid (and thus become the first city ever to have hosted both the summer games, which it staged in 2008, and the winter event). Most other competitors have dropped out, mainly because of the cost, so Beijing has an excellent chance. The only other contestant is Almaty in Kazakhstan. The winner will be announced in July.

Chinese officials insist that enough artificial snow can be made in Chongli without affecting the lives of inhabitants. But it will not be easy in an area near the Gobi Desert. The government is spending nearly $90m on water-diversion schemes to satisfy Olympic demand. Some experts already grumble about the huge water-consumption of existing ski facilities around the capital (equal to the annual water-use of more than 40,000 residents, according to Hu Kanping, an environmentalist). Such concerns have prompted a crackdown on the opening of golf courses—another new pastime of the elite. But golf will resurface as an Olympic sport only at the games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, after a lapse of 112 years. Golfing golds are not (yet) a government priority.

[For more from Hu Kanping on the impact of ski resorts on drought-stricken Beijing, see: Ski resorts gulp Beijing’s water supplies].

See the publisher’s website for the original version of this article

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