Beijing, China’s capital city, and one of its fastest-growing municipalities, is running out of water. Although more than 200 rivers and streams can still be found on official maps of Beijing, the sad reality is that little or no water flows into the city anymore. Beijing’s springs, once famous for their sweet-tasting water, have disappeared. Dozens of reservoirs built since the 1950s have dried up. Finding a clean source of water anywhere in the city has become impossible.
To keep the taps flowing with clean water for the 2008 Olympic Games and beyond, Beijing began pumping its groundwater dry and draining water from distant reservoirs and rivers. Thirty years ago, Beijing residents regarded groundwater as an inexhaustible resource. But now hydrogeologists warn it too is running out. Beijing’s groundwater table is dropping, water is being pumped out faster than it can be replenished, and more and more groundwater is becoming polluted.
Meanwhile, 25 years of drought and pollution of the city’s reservoirs have contributed to the steady decline in available water resources per person, from about 1,000 cubic metres in 1949 to less than 230 cubic metres in 2007.
Beijing officials are taking drastic measures to redirect water from the south of the country in order to meet the city’s growing water needs. The biggest of these water transfers is the South-North Water Diversion Scheme, which official estimates say might cost as much as $75-billion and will push at least 330,000 people off their land.
In the pages that follow, we lay out the history of failed policies that have led to the current crisis and ways to reverse the trend and meet the water needs of Beijing sustainably.