Hebei Turns on the Tap as Drought Grips Beijing

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Originally published in Xinhua News Agency 

SHIJIAZHUANG, Sept. 18 (Xinhua) -- A water shortage in Beijing is being tackled with an emergency diversion of 300 million cubic meters of water from Hebei Province that started at 10 a.m. on Thursday.

It will arrive in Beijing in 10 days.

The water will flow from three reservoirs, starting with Huangbizhuang, and last until March 10, said the Hebei Provincial Water Resources Department.

Clear water headed for Beijing via an 18-km branch canal connected with another open-cut grand canal totaling 307.5 km after workers opened sluices in the Huangbizhuang Reservoir, Hebei Province, on Thursday.

The canal, which was finished in April, forms the northern end of the middle route of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project. It starts with the well-known Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, runs south to a local waterway in Hebei known as Huotuo in the south and ends at Tuancheng Lake in Beijing in the north.

Apart from Huangbizhuang, water will be drawn from two other facilities -- Gangnan and Wangkuai reservoirs -- said Huo Guoli, chief of the construction administrative section with Hebei Provincial Water Resources Department.

The quality of water from the three reservoirs, tested at level-III, conforms to the requirements set by the Beijing Water Authority, said Luo Yang, Water Environment Monitoring Center chief of Haihe River catchments.

"We will monitor the full process of some 30 aspects such as temperature and pH value to ensure the same quality of water being diverted to Beijing as at the sources," said Luo.

Beijing has had water shortages partly because of its geography, with nine years of consecutive drought starting in 1999. It has received only 75 percent of its expected precipitation over that period.

The shortage in Beijing is set to reach crisis point in 2010, when the population is expected to top 17 million, or 3 million more than its resources can support.

An optimistic estimate of Beijing's annual water supply is about 3.73 billion cubic meters in 2010, taking into account the Yangtze River water supplied by the ambitious South-to-North Water Diversion Project.

Yet the usable volume will be no more than 3.26 billion cubic meters, excluding at least 470 million cubic meters needed to maintain the city's ecology, according to a study.

Beijing had more than 15 million permanent residents and 4 million migrants at the end of 2006. The consequences of the rising population include the continuous decline of groundwater and a worsening environment.

To supply water to an additional 3 million people, experts say Beijing needs, by 2010, to slash water consumption per 10,000 yuan of GDP to 33 or even 31 cubic meters, down around 36 percent from the 2005 level.

As a first step, the municipal government is reconsidering a plan to impose a cap on consumption per household, which was first proposed four years ago but abandoned for "technical reasons", according to the Beijing Water Authority.

Beijing's water price is 3.7 yuan per ton. Under a quota system, residents will have to pay two to five times more for water if they exceed the limit, which will be about 12 tons a month for a family of four.

The drought was alleviated somewhat this year, as the capital had a wet summer and fewer hot days than usual. The municipal observatory said it has recorded 443.1 mm of rain so far this year, the most in a decade. There were only three days when the temperature exceeded 35 degrees Celsius, compared with nine last year or an average of 11.4 in the past 10 years.

Yu Yaping, the publicity section chief of the Beijing Water Authority, denied the recently concluded Olympics and Paralympics had any effect on the capital's water situation. Yu blamed another factor -- the lack of major rivers around Beijing -- for the water scarcity.

As a neighbor of Beijing and also Tianjin, Hebei Province, which also sits in the dry north of the country, has sacrificed to safeguard water supplies in the two mega-cities, said Huo.

"Thursday's emergency diversion is another example of the sacrifice Hebei has made," said the official, who added the province had enjoyed ample rain since the beginning of the year.

The local observatory said that so far this year, it recorded 509 mm of rain. The three reservoirs -- Huangbizhuang, Gangnan and Wangkuai -- have amassed 1.33 billion cu m of water in total and can supply Beijing with 300 million cu m of water.

In return, Beijing will compensate Hebei under a three-stage system, which Yu declined to quantify. The first stage has already been paid.

The South-to-North Water Diversion Project, consisting of eastern, middle and western routes, is designed to divert water from the water-rich south of the country, mainly the Yangtze River, the country's longest, to the dry north.

The eastern and middle routes are already under construction. The western route, meant to replenish the Yellow River with water diverted from the upper reaches of the Yangtze River by digging tunnels in the high mountains of western China, is still at the blueprint stage.

According to the South-to-North water diversion office, when part of the project is completed in 2010, about 1 billion cubic meters of water will be diverted to Beijing annually.