Parched Beijing runs out of freshwater

Posted: 22 September 2008

Author: Don HInrichsen

Municipal authorities in Beijing have announced that the parched city will receive 300 million cubic metres of water from neighbouring Hebei Province until March 2009. Most of this water will come from dams and underground reservoirs, already stressed from the inefficient use of water for irrigated agriculture.

Beijing, China's capital, has essentially run out of freshwater. The city, with 16 million people - China's second largest - has been facing critical water shortages for over a decade. Now, continued population growth and a drier climate, coupled to increased use of irrigated agriculture, has depleted both ground and surface waters in northern China.

Drying farmland in Huangshan, east China's Anhui Province
Drying farmland in Huangshan, east China's Anhui Province
Drying farmland in Huangshan, east China's Anhui Province. High temperatures and lack of summer rain have brought drought to many parts of China. Photo credit: China Foto Press
As a national average, only about one third of the water withdrawn for irrigation is used efficiently. Meanwhle, Beijing's groundwater resources are contracting by up to two metres a year, with many wells completely dried up.

The over-use of both surface and ground waters in northern China has conspired to create a deepening water crisis across the entire region. This has been compounded by the fact that the southern part of the country, which contains the massive Yangtze River Basin, contains about 80 per cent of the country's water resources but only 56 per cent of its population. The 44 per cent of China's population concentrated in the desiccated north have access to only 15 per cent of the country's water resources.

South-North Water Diversion Project
South-North Water Diversion Project
South-North Water Diversion Project. Beijing, with a population of 16 million people, is struggling with an increasingly dire water shortage worsened by 30 years of drought. The Chinese government's answer is the largest water diversion undertaking ever. Photo © DCI
This imbalance has led to the creation of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project (SNWD), a massive engineering project costing about $62.5 billion. Current plans call for the construction of three large canals to channel water from the southern part of the country to the thirsty north.

Olympic canal

Beijing's emergency water supplies will flow through a hastily constructed canal 309 kilometres long designed to bring water supplies to Beijing for the summer Olympics. This canal will form part of the larger complex of South-to-North Water Diversion schemes, which have been under construction since 2002.

But China's Ministry of Water Resources is projecting a serious water crisis within 30 years unless the country begins to use water much more efficiently than it does now. Chinese industries, for instance, recycle only 20-30 per cent of the water they use for production, while guzzling water at rates 5-10 times higher than their counterparts in Europe or North America.

Predicted water shortages in China by 2010
Predicted water shortages in China by 2010
According to water expert Sandra Postel, Director of the Global Water Policy Project, based in Massachusetts, China is a classic example of the "zero sum game of water management" - where authorities increase water supplies to one user while taking it from another. "China has to figure out how to use its water supplies more efficiently," she says, "or it could lead to civil unrest."

The Ministry of Water Resources thinks the next several decades are absolutely critical, a time when the country must begin to manage its limited water resources and introduce across the board conservation measures, including improving irrigation efficiencies, reducing water used by industries per unit of output, and recycling water used by both industry and agriculture.

Don Hnrichsen is a Contr ibuting Editor to this website.