Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Human Rights

ENVIRONMENT-CHINA: Faced With Olympian Water Shortages

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Mar 14 2008 (IPS) - Holding the Summer Olympic Games in one of the world’s driest cities poses a tough challenge for the hosts in Beijing though they have been working assiduously to ensure adequate water supplies during the events in August.

However, elaborate schemes for water diversion from the neighbouring provinces are already threatening to backfire as local officials resist pressures being brought on them to share their water resources to avert a crisis in the capital.

Beijing’s thirst for water has been a hot topic during the ongoing annual session of the National People’s Congress or parliament (Mar. 5-18), which is the only chance for Chinese deputies to discuss critical issues publicly.

"It is not that we don’t want to supply Beijing with water … there is simply no water to share," Zhang Fuming, a delegate from the northwestern Shanxi province said, on the sidelines of the parliamentary session.

Shanxi and Hebei are the two provinces that Beijing has called upon to share the burden of hosting the Olympics when the capital’s water consumption is expected to hit 2.7 million cu m a day. But both provinces, which sit upstream of Yongdinghe river – Beijing’s main water system – are struggling to meet their own demand.

Hebei, for instance, has been suffering from perennial droughts since 1999 but local leaders have made the growing of water-consuming hybrid rice one of their goals.


Shanxi province, known as China’s coal pit, has exhausted its scarce water resources by excessive mine development and pumping out of underground water – most of which is contaminated with pollutants and unusable either for industry or irrigation.

"It would take years of water conservation to restore the water supply and water quality in the province," reckons Zhang who works as a development researcher for the provincial government.

This plight is shared by most of northern China where it rarely rains and the earth is dry and barren. Even the capital city is under siege by the advancing sands of the Gobi desert.

Per capita water resources for the country’s 1.3 billion people is less than one-third of the global average but for Beijing and that of 130 Chinese cities’ per capita water usage is below national average.

In fact, the Olympic city’s water shortages are so acute that a recent public debate saw many residents suggesting that the capital be moved away from Beijing which has a paucity of clean water.

Despite the capital’s dwindling supplies, the organisers of the Beijing Olympics and its urban developers are designing and building a series of new water parks and vast golf courses. Parched Beijing has currently more than 30 golf courses, each of them maintained at the expense of 3,000 cu m of water a day.

To meet the capital’s mounting demands for water, Chinese planners have invested in huge infrastructure projects that would divert water from the country’s major rivers, the Yangtze, and the Yellow river.

The most ambitious plan – the South to North Water Diversion – is projected to supply Beijing with one billion tonnes of water a year, pumped from the Yangtze River up a 1,277 km canal. The total cost of the project is estimated at more than 60 billion US dollars, more than double the officially admitted 28 billion dollars that the controversial Three Gorges Dam had cost.

The scheme envisages three canals along the east, centre and west, carrying water for hundreds of km from south to north to irrigate the arid northern plains and bring water to Beijing. The initial stages of the project are to be finished for the Olympic games but the rest could take years to complete.

In January, Chinese engineers began diverting water from the Yellow River to boost the capital’s dwindling supplies ahead of the Olympics. Up to 150 million cu m of water will flow 400 km to lake Baiyangdian, south of Beijing, over the next three months.

Meanwhile, state planners have come up with a scheme calling on Beijing’s neighbouring provinces to share their water resources and ensure the smooth progress of the Olympic games. While the plan outlines unspecified payment for the water supplies, delegates to the parliamentary session said it would be difficult to implement.

"Without administrative orders, such water transactions would be virtually impossible," hydrologist Cao Dazheng and delegate for Tianjin city said during group discussions. "There is no clear division of water rights among localities. What is more, there are various industrial interests vested in these water supplies because of the local production of oil and coal."

While committing to supply water for the Olympics, Hebei provincial officials have demanded compensation from Beijing for depriving them of precious resources that could have been used to develop lucrative industries locally, according to media reports. Beyond the Olympic games, the future of Beijing’s water supply remains uncertain.

The water crisis plaguing northern China, as its aquifers are sucked dry by thirsty cities, is exacerbated by pollution which has contaminated more than half of the country’s waterways. Some 300 million people, a quarter of China’s population, have no access to clean drinking water, according to government statistics.

 
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