Monday, July 14, 2008

Olympics suck up China's already scarce water

(07-14) 04:00 PDT Changgucheng, China -- Three years ago, local government officials told farmers in this village of 7,000 residents to stop using water from a reservoir near their wheat and corn fields. If they needed water, the farmers were told, they would have to dig a well.

"They said there wasn't enough water," Jia Jianguo, 60, recalled.

At their own expense, the farmers dug a 90-foot well. But even though the new irrigation system worked fine, the locals have been forced to pool their meager resources each year that the water recedes to keep their crops alive. The well is now 135 feet deep, and the groundwater is seeping away as fast as the province's increasingly scarce water supplies are being channeled some 100 miles southwest to the thirsty capital of 15 million inhabitants, Beijing.

The Changgucheng farmers were never told that their reservoir is one of four in the province tapped to meet the capital's demand for water leading up to and during the Olympic Games, which begin in August. The Games are expected to increase Beijing's water consumption by at least 5 percent, or 162,000 acre-feet, according to a recent report by Probe International, a Canadian environmental group. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons.
From south to north

The channel is needed not only to make more water available for Beijing, but to clean Olympic venues and to flush out the city's polluted canals and lakes.

It is part of a mammoth $25 billion diversion scheme to bring water from southern rivers to the arid north to bolster Beijing's water supply.

Ecologists say this is just another example of how the push to showcase a green Olympics is creating environmental problems in provinces outside Beijing. Major polluting factories have been shut down or moved out of the capital for the Olympics. Diverting Hebei's water is just one of many potentially problematic actions, experts say.
'Not a fundamental solution'

The study by Probe International says Beijing's water transfers from north and south, along with a growing number of ultra-deep wells in the Karst Mountains near the city, are a recipe for environmental calamity.

"Such policies of taking ever more water from ever further jurisdictions beyond Beijing may be an emergency measure to ease Beijing's water shortages and flush out its polluted waterways, but it is not a fundamental solution," said the report. "With each new project to tap water somewhere else, demand for water only increases, and at an ever greater cost to China's environment and economy.

"Whether diverting surface water or digging deeper for groundwater, the underlying solution proposed is like trying to quench a thirst by drinking poison."
Urbanization and drought

Dai Qing, a Beijing-based environmental activist once jailed for criticizing the massive Three Gorges Dam, says Beijing and its surroundings are facing a serious water crisis.

Hyper-speed urbanization has doubled Beijing's water consumption between 1995 and 2005 to some 3.2 million acre-feet annually. That, coupled with a decade-long drought, has left the capital dry and its groundwater severely depleted.

Dai predicts there will be no water crisis during the Olympics. But she warns that it will take "10 years, 20 years, even a century" to restore depleted water resources. Dai says the problem is China's political structure, which doesn't allow the truth about the water crisis to be made public or permit criticism about state water policies.

"Ordinary Chinese, we have no right to ask why," she said.
Tailed by police

That was underscored last week when three reporters visited Hebei province with Zhang Junfeng, a researcher with the Green Earth Volunteer Organization, a Beijing nongovernmental organization. Zhang, who is strong supporter of China's right to host the Olympics and believes the Games will have a positive long-term impact, wanted to take the group to see the four Hebei reservoirs sending water to Beijing.

Plainclothes officials and police who refused to reveal their names or identities stopped the group at every turn, tailing Zhang's car for nine hours and intimidating locals from talking to the reporters.

A group of 15, only one of whom identified himself as a police officer, blocked a road leading into the Wangkui reservoir, placing a narrow, long table across the road.

Though they insisted the area had been shut down to visitors since 2004, locals driving up the road for an afternoon swim were clearly befuddled by the blockade.
'This area is closed'

"We welcome you to the area," said a man who professed to be the reservoir manager, before repeating, "This area is closed."

The officials, who then detained Zhang and the journalists, agreed to release the group if they left the area.

An unmarked car, however, followed the reporters for the rest of the day.

A local resident who refused to give his name said he had asked the police why they had turned the foreigners away from the lake.

"They said it was because of the Olympics, and something about pollution," the man said.

This story is part of a series exploring the changes that China's first Olympic Games are bringing to Beijing and the rest of the nation. To read the other installments, go to
China's water woes

Over-extraction of groundwater and falling water tables are huge problems for China, particularly in the north. Environmental activists warn that the nation is facing a future of water shortages, water pollution and continuing deterioration in water quality. Beijing is one of the world's most water-scarce mega-cities, with a deficit of 324,000 acre-feet annually.

According to some environmentalists:

-- Half of China's 617 largest cities - including Beijing - face water shortages.

-- At least 300 million people do not have access to safe drinking water.

-- 90 percent of cities' groundwater and 75 percent of rivers and lakes are polluted.

-- Chinese industries dump 40 billion to 60 billion tons of untreated wastewater into rivers and lakes every year.

-- 90 million people are exposed to water pollution on a daily basis.

-- Beijing golf courses use 21,900 acre-feet of water each year.
credits goes to:

Sources: Greenpeace,, Ministry of Construction, Probe International

E-mail Kathleen McLaughlin at

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