Chinese water specialists warn of a mass exodus from Beijing early next century unless the authorities take drastic steps to quench the capital's thirst. There are fears that the forest of high-rise buildings and swanky hotels which sprung up in Beijing in the 1980s could one day be standing in the middle of the world's biggest ghost town.
As farmers in the outlying districts are forced to dig ever deeper to reach groundwater and scientists issue their warnings, quietly but repeatedly, the gravity of the situation is sinking in. Conservation of supplies is taken deadly seriously at top levels, with a civic campaign to save water now conducted by an Office for Water Conservation set up by the municipal government.
There is even a proposal to divert part of the mighty Yangtze River, far off in central China, to help solve the urgent problems of the arid north.
The water shortage is not confined to Beijing. According to a survey published in a 1989 book, The Crisis in the Source of Life, 40 Chinese cities are in the throes of a crisis and another 143 have a serious problem, with total supply falling short of demand by about 20 million cubic metres a day.
Beijing is in north China's semi-drought region, and the per capita water resources available are only 4 per cent of the global average. The metropolitan area, which covers 10 counties and much farmland, gets about 600 millimetres of rain a year. But nearly all of this falls in short sharp bursts in the summer, and quickly runs off. The winters are cold, bright and bone-dry. And much of the summer rain falls on barren land behind the Yanshan Mountains, which screen the city from dust storms blowing in from the Gobi Desert to the northwest.
Beijing's water shortage hit crisis proportions in the early 1980s, when China began opening to the outside world and the economy grew rapidly. As business expanded, so did the urban area and the population (despite the strict one-child Family planning policy), thereby deepening the crisis.
Beijing consumes about 4 billion cubic metres of water every year. Xiang Wenjuan, a senior engineer at he Beijing Institute of Hydraulic Engineering, Planning, Design and Research, says that in drought years, the city needs about one billion cubic metres more water than it gets.
To make up this shortfall, the standard practice has been to pump water up from the great store of groundwater deposited over hundreds of years. But many years of exploitation have resulted in a 1,000-square-kilometre funnel being formed beneath the city. The deepest point is now about 40 metres down, whereas in the 1950s, villages in the municipality needed to sink a well only three metres deep to get all the water they needed.
"The dramatic drop in the water table has also downgraded the quality of Beijing's groundwater," says Xiang. This deep water was deposited at the bottom of the store several centuries ago, and is of poor quality compared with newer water.
A similar decline has taken place in the supply from 80 reservoirs located outside districts, which mostly serve farm areas.
But the bulk of the water for industrial and household use in the city proper comes from two large reservoirs, Miyun and Guanting. Xiang notes with concern that the supply from Guanting has shrunk from 1.9 billion cubic metres a year in the 1950s to only 230 million at present.
The reason for the steady decline, Xiang says, is that new coal mines and coal-fired power plants, both consuming an enormous amount of water, have been built along the upper reaches of the river that feeds the reservoir. Even the current trickle from the two big reservoirs, she says, could dry up completely; several small reservoirs have already done so.
Beijing is planning to build another reservoir to feed the giant Yanshan petrochemical works, and to supply some other districts with water from the Juam River in the southeast. But this, Xiang warns, is only a few drops in the bucket compared with what is needed.
A much more significant and effective measure to address the crisis in recent years has been a high-powered, citywide campaign to conserve water, which combines civic appeal and publicity with tough penalties.
Industries are allotted a quota, and charged high rates for exceeding it. This led to a 37 per cent drop in industrial usage during the 1980s, despite rapid growth in the sector. Successes in the fight against wastage are widely publicised in city neighbourhoods during an annual water conservation week.
In addition, Beijing has managed to place about 65,000 hectares ? one-third of its rural irrigated land ? under a modernised water-saving irrigation project which has helped cut consumption in the agricultural sector.
Water recycling in China has yet to receive the attention it merits. Even in big cities such as Beijing, which has a pilot recycling plant, it is still at an experimental stage.
But Xiang believes the city's ultimate salvation could lie in the proposal to channel Yangtze River water over a distance of about 1,300 kilometres, pumping it up the highlands of north China to the thirsty cities of Beijing and Tianjin. The project ? still at the discussion stage and somewhat controversial because of its cost, feasibility and possible ecological impact ? could begin in a few years.*
Wang Yong is a reporter with the China Daily in Beijing.
Xu Chengshi, formerly a senior editor at Xinhua News Agency in Beijing, is guest professor at the China School of Journalism and the Beijing Broadcasting Institute.
This article first appeared in Panoscope.
Emergency projects on Haihe River under way
Work is currently under way on a series of projects to harness the flood-prone Haihe River in East China. 1991 brought a devastating flood that left millions homeless near the junction of Henan, Anhui, Jiangsu and Shandong provinces. More than 3 million farmers From the four affected provinces, helped by 30,000 earth moving machines, are taking part in 12 of the 18 irrigation and diversion projects in the area.
According to a report in the People's Daily, the Xinmintan water diversion canal in Jiangsu and the Four Lake sluice-gate in Shandong have been completed and are in operation. Larger projects such as the three Haihe River flood diversion zones and the demolition of the old Qiujiahu reservoir and several other dyke and canal expansion projects in Anhui, are also making progress, says the report.
Efforts are also being made to speed up the reconstruction of the Shimantan Reservoir and the Hongruhe-Yangzhuang Diversion Zone in Henan province. In Jiangsu province, development of the irrigation and flood-draining facilities around the Hongze River, the largest natural reservoir in the Haihe River system.
The river's flood control projects involve the evacuation and resettlement of hundreds of thousands of farmers. 83 per cent of them, 215,000 people has already moved. The measures have taken place without any border disputes between the provinces. These flood control projects have already cost US$152m. Officials have attributed the high speed and quality of the projects to the introduction of an open bid system in the mar projects.
The government has pledged to invest more than US$2.1bn in the next decade to build more flood control projects along the Haihe River to enhance its safety level and fight serious flooding which may occur every 30 to 50 years.
Three Gorges Project open to foreign bids
The Three Gorges Hydroelectric Project is to open to bids from both international and domestic contractors, according to a recently announcement in Beijing.
The bidding is to be organised by the China Yangtze Three Gorges Project Development Corporation. Wei Xikang, an official with the corporation's preparatory office told the China Daily recently, "The socialist market economy requires that open bidding takes place.'
He also said that part of the hydroelectric industry's reform over the past few years has involved open bidding for the construction of several medium-sized hydroelectric projects across the country.
"Bidding proved successful in the construction of these projects and we will repeat the policy for the Three Gorges Project," Wei told the paper.
The project was approved by the National People's Congress last April and is to be divided into several phases. These will all be open to bids, some to overseas bidding.
The China Yangtze Three Gorges Project Development Corporation is to be formally established "sometime this year", and will take responsibility for the construction of the Three Gorges Project and the management of the Three Gorges Hydroelectric Power Plant after the project is completed. The corporation is to assume full responsibility for its profits and losses. Lu Youmei is to be general manager of the corporation.
The corporation's preparatory office has invested more than US$100m in initial construction work on the Three Gorges Project. The investment includes US$32m for the relocation of nearby residents, US$25m for preparatory construction, US$22m for surveys and design and US$15m for scientific research and international consultation.
This year, a further US$17m is to be invested in the project through the corporation. Efforts are being made to finish all the preparatory construction work for the project by the end of 1994. The project involves the building of a 1,983 metre long, 185 metre high dam at Sandouping, 38km downstream from Yichang in Hubei province.
According to the feasibility report, it will require US$9.9bn (a fixed budget based on 1990 constant prices), 18 years and 10.8 million tons of concrete to build the dam, which will have the world's most powerful hydroelectric plant with its total installed capacity of 17,680 mega-watts. The plant will be capable of generating 84bn kilowatt-hours annually.
More than 1.13 million local people will have to be relocated because of the project. *