The Thirsty Dragon: Pitting Farmers vs. City Dwellers and Planning an Olympic Shower

Via JapanFocus, a provocative and insightful piece by Dai Qing (a writer and an activist who has long fought the Three Gorge dam project), regarding China’s impending water crisis and – more importantly – the class divisions it will foment as wealthy urban dwellers demand more water from poor rural Chinese. This powerful review corresponded neatly with new China State Media reports that water levels in China’s largest fresh water lake – Poyang Lake in east China’s Jiangxi province – are nearing record lows as a drought exacerbates existing shortages. As Qing notes:

“… the Great Leap had encouraged people everywhere to “put maximum effort into building hydrology projects.” As a result, cadres—or officials—in the People’s Communes had ordered the construction of countless small dams. The wild enthusiasm of the “Great Leap into communism” passed, leaving disaster, agricultural dislocation, and mass starvation in its wake. Unstable embankments and leaking dams littered the countryside.

By the late 1960s, the Ministry of Hydrology … was preoccupied with the overwhelming task of trying to deal with the ongoing ecological disaster created by the Great Leap. Even my father-in-law’s hometown in Jixian County, Hebei province, had been devastated. His village had been submerged when they dammed the Jizhou River to create the Yuqiao Reservoir, less than one hundred kilometers from the Guanting Reservoir. The inhabitants of 141 villages had been resettled during the building of that project. There probably wouldn’t have been any complaints if the dam had really benefited local farmers.

But as was the case with so many grandiose dam-building projects, the local cadres behind the Yuqiao Reservoir had failed to ascertain the geological makeup of the area. The two-kilometer-long dam was built on sandy soil. Within a few years water was seeping out to create a vast marshland downstream. The result was the destruction of 50,000 acres of land that had provided food for the population of nearly one million people in the six major counties downstream. What was left, so Dejia told me, was a bumpy moonscape that could no longer support agriculture of any consequence. The farmers had long since been forced to leave their homes, but they snuck back to their ruined towns and eked out a living, harvesting only a fraction of the food they used to produce. To this day those villagers are still on state welfare.

Meanwhile, the authorities in Beijing are preparing for the competitors and visitors who will descend on the Chinese capital next August for the 2008 Olympics. Unprecedented efforts have gone into transforming the city. Of course, international audiences will mostly be concerned with who jumps the highest or runs the fastest. But Beijing, the capital of a “rapidly rising” China, is anxious to show off its architectural magnificence: the grand Olympic Stadium (the “Nest”), the “Water Cube” built for swimming events, all the new luxury hotels, the Rem Koolhaas–designed China Central TV building, and the multilane ring roads around the city.

While the farmers living on the outskirts of greater Beijing are given strictly controlled allocations of water, in central Beijing the people in charge are celebrating the construction of the ultimate “water follies” which will be ready in time for the Olympic year. These include the vast lake that will surround the titanium, egg-shaped National Grand Theater next to the Great Hall of the People, just off Tiananmen Square, as well as the largest fountain in the world at the Shunyi “Water Heaven”—one that can shoot 134 meters high. The Shunyi water park has been built on the dried-out remains of the Chaobai River—no irony intended. And then there are the hundred golf courses that have been laid out in greater Beijing. These infamous “water guzzlers” occupy over 20,000 acres of land and their imported turf has become a serious drain on the city’s dwindling water resources.

Perhaps if this spectacle had been held three hundred years ago, or even a hundred years ago, the environment of Beijing might have been able to sustain it. After all, the city is surrounded by mountains on three sides, has five major water sources, and once had numerous lakes and marshes with underground springs constantly welling up and disgorging crystal-clear water. It was a rich and fertile place, and was home to five imperial capitals. But today Beijing is entirely different. Its reservoirs are 90 percent dry, and all of its rivers flow at historically low levels. The aquifer under Beijing has been drastically lowered by long-term overuse.

Is all of this just because of climate change? Certainly the city has been afflicted by drought for the past eight years, but the problems are more fundamental. Since 1949, the Beijing metropolitan area has experienced an eightfold population increase (growing from 2.2 million in 1948 to 18 million today). The city itself covers a geographic area that is fifty times larger, and uses thirty-five times as much water. Even the consumption of whiskey has increased one-hundred-fold in recent years. And what of the city’s water, that precious commodity without which no one—young or old, rich or poor—can survive? On average, Beijing people have only three hundred cubic meters of water resources per capita, one eighth of the Chinese average—which is 2,200 cubic meters— and one thirtieth of the world average.

But during the Olympic Games, Beijing will enjoy an unprecedented supply of water. Special pipes will bring unpolluted water from the provinces to provide for the whole city, allowing people to enjoy potable water from their taps for the first time—but only for as long as the games last. Meanwhile, when the crowds watch and applaud the Olympic performances at the aquatic events, neither they nor the athletes will be aware that they are not really competing on the waters of Beijing’s original Chaobai River. The “river” they will be using is an artificial creation made by damming the two ends of a long-dry riverbed and filling it with water pumped from deep underground.

After the Olympics, what then? The quest of Mao Zedong and his fellow Communist leaders to conquer nature led to the widespread razing of forests, the destruction of grasslands, the conversion of wetlands to farms, and the incessant damming of rivers. The heedless and unaccountable use of natural resources in more recent decades has led poor Beijing to the desperate state it is in today. My father-in-law’s warning was prescient: the Guanting Reservoir for which Mao wrote his inscription in 1953 was China’s first large reservoir, storing four billion cubic meters. For four decades it was Beijing’s main source of drinking water. Today it is three-quarters empty and has not supplied Beijing with water for ten years. The Miyun Reservoir, Beijing’s other lifeline on the Chaobai River, today operates at a tenth of its original capacity, supplying Beijing with only a tenth of its current water needs.

To make up for the dramatic water shortage, Beijing for the moment “mines” 80 percent of its water supply from its underground aquifer. But it is doing so at a rate faster than the aquifer can be replenished, causing the water table beneath the capital to drop precipitously and the land to subside in a two-thousand-square-kilometer “funnel.” The balance of the city’s water is being piped in from increasingly resentful neighboring provinces, such as Hebei and Shanxi. How will the city’s insatiable thirst be satisfied in the future?

This entry was posted on Thursday, December 6th, 2007 at 11:56 pm and is filed under China.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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