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China’s drought: a taxi driver’s response

Radical solutions often come from unexpected places. Feng Yongfeng reports on the Beijing cabbie with an answer to the problems of China’s parched north, and a new strategy for conserving water.

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Liu Zhenxiang, aged 48, is a typical Beijing taxi driver. But most of his worries are not about fuel prices, traffic or fares – they are about north China’s crippling drought.

Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau held a meeting on May 28 at which a number of local people were invited to put forward their ideas on improving the capital’s environment. When bureau deputy director Du Shaozhong saw Liu, he joked: “Mr Liu, you had better keep your speech short and to the point; if you read out the whole of that 28,000 character essay you sent in, no-one else will have time to speak!” Liu replied in the affirmative: “The essay might be long, but it all comes down to one point,” he said. “How do we store more water in north China?”

The bureau had begun a campaign on March 26 encouraging the public to: “Put forward suggestions for conservation in the capital and prepare for the green Olympics.” A month later, Liu stopped off at the bureau and handed in his essay, “Drought in northern China: its causes and solutions”. The essay was later identified as one of the best proposals the bureau had received.

Liu believes that the direct cause of the drought is north China’s ever-decreasing rainfall. He looked at rainfall data and found 700-800 millimetres fell every year in some parts of the north China plain. But between 1997 and 2005, the average annual rainfall in Beijing was only 466 millimetres. He wanted to know why it was so much lower.

He first worked it out one day in 2003. Says Liu: “There is no groundwater because it does not rain, and it does not rain because there is no groundwater. Not enough water is evaporating, over too small an area. Just like the old saying: you can only reap what you sow. The terrain in west China is higher than in the east, and the water from the plateaus flows downwards and eastwards. The water is not collected and stored on the ground, so of course there is little rain.”

With this in mind, Liu looked at the effects of reservoirs, both large and small. He found that reservoirs lock in water and reduce the flow downstream. This reduces the volume and surface area of water in rivers, leading to insufficient evaporation, which affects regional climates and leads to a lack of rain – exacerbating the drought. In his essay, Liu sets out a three-pronged solution to the problem of drought. The first part is reforestation, which could enable more water to be trapped. The second is to allow greater amounts of water to flow out of reservoirs and boost the volume of groundwater. The third is to store water by creating wetlands, marshes and pools on farmland, taking local conditions into account. This would increase the surface area of water in the region. In times of drought, the water could be used for irrigation, while under normal conditions the wetlands would increase evaporation and create more rain, also increasing groundwater levels.

It all boils down to a simple maxim: we should do everything in our power to increase the amount of surface water.

Liu says that rainfall and surface water in Beijing are directly related. “A few decades ago, lots of areas surrounding the city centre, like Anzhen Bridge or east of Sanlitun, were covered with ponds and reed marshes. Back then, the weather was not so dry. Now, wetlands on the north China plain are decreasing, and so is rainfall.”

Water storage is the most important part of Liu’s plan. He told me about his aspirations. “Water storage means creating thousands of ponds, marshes and wetlands spread out across the land. If we see the land as a person, then the rivers are blood vessels, and pools are what keep the blood circulating. Beijing is massively over-exploiting its groundwater. In the suburb of Shunyi, they have had to dig wells down to 70 metres before they see any water. If my water storage plan were put into action, we could stop these plummeting groundwater levels.”


Draining away

At the end of June, I joined the China Environmental Protection Century Tour on a trip to Xuchang, in central China’s Henan province, and found people were already putting surprisingly similar plans into action in order to store valuable rainwater in the cities and across the vast central China plain.

Xuchang does not suffer from a lack of rain; annual rainfall normally stands at about 700 millimetres, and can sometimes be as much as 1,000 millimetres. Wang Jinhuai, director of the Xuchang Municipal People's Congress, says: “A few years ago, when I was deputy mayor, I asked the Water Conservation Department to find out why the ground in Xuchang was getting so much drier every year. They found the main reason was not industry and agriculture’s increasing burden on water resources, although these did have some effect. The main cause was that we were too concerned with flood prevention, instead of water retention. All the river channels had been straightened out, and the natural ponds that used to cover the countryside had either been drained or filled in. Any rain that fell, even light rain, immediately drained away to the sea before it had even wet the soil.”

There is a small ornamental lake in the entrance hall of the Xuchang Municipal Party Committee. The water for the lake is currently extracted from groundwater resources, but soon a system of pipes will be installed to channel rainwater into the lake. A few years ago, Xuchang built a system to control the Xueyuan River, which flows around the city. A number of small dams were built across the river. When there is little rain, water is retained behind the dams, and when there are heavy downpours, the water overflows into the next small “lake”. The banks of the river have become a popular place for the people of Xuchang to spend their leisure time in pleasant surroundings.

Wang believes that the countryside has the greatest potential for water-saving projects. Rural areas tend to have more natural depressions and holes left behind by earth extraction, as well as relatively unaltered rivers. The village of Nanwu, near Xuchang, is low-lying and often at risk of flooding. But a few years ago, the local authorities had the idea to turning this hazard into an advantage. They created a huge lake, and started to link up many of the area’s natural ponds. They turned straight water channels into winding streams and created a linked water system that would absorb the water that falls from the heavens. Nanwu is now a well-known wetland area that is home to fishing, fruit-picking and eco-tourism industries. Economic development and environmental protection have both been advanced. Wang Guosheng, a local party secretary, says: “The ponds and streams may be small, but they have solved a big problem for us. During heavy rains, water is retained and distributed. In times of drought, we can use the water for irrigation. There is more moisture in the air on a day-to-day basis, and our groundwater supplies are being boosted over the long term. The project did not require a lot of investment, and was quite simple to implement.”

He continues: “The key is to be open-minded and think in new ways. Once the ground here became wetter, reeds and other plants started to grow and we started to raise crabs, which attract large numbers of tourists every autumn. Our integrated plans: to promote ponds and rivers, raise fish, fruit and vegetables and then encourage tourism based on fishing and fruit-picking, have turned us into a top local attraction. This sort of project would definitely be worth extending to north China – as a way to solve their drought.”
 

Feng Yongfeng, chinadialogue Beijing correspondent

Homepage photo by JF en Chine

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

需要的是数据和科学的分析,而不是推测和想象

没有底下水是因为没有降水,还是由于没有降水而没有地下水?是这么推测的吗?有什么数据来支持这项说法呢?就以北京这一大城市来说, 每天消耗数百万吨的水,对水生态循环就没有任何影响吗?

Need data and scientific analyze not speculation and imagination

There is no groundwater because it does not rain, and it does not rain because there is no groundwater?

That's it?is there any data to support it?So that mwans the mega city of Beijing ,which is consuming million tonnes of water everyday,has no impact to the water recyling?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

能走多远?

经历了数十年的围湖造田和改造河道、湿地之后,最后还是意识到了自然塑造出来的地貌自有其意义所在。连年的洪灾干旱无情地耻笑了我们的愚行,到现在我们才发现这些“荒地”的实际价值。不过,在一切无可挽回之前意识到了问题和解决的方法,这还是值得高兴。
然而,现在城市的圈地运动还是方兴未艾,在空前的土地压力面前,能有多少土地可以用来承担“留水”的工作?已经用以留水的土地能否保证不会被征用?层出不穷的征地新闻下,到底有多少城市的领导可以下决心将土地用于保护生态上?

How far to go?

After several decades of efforts in reclaiming lands by surrounding and filling in lake bottom,
transforming the river and wetlands, finally people realize that the natural landscape shapes its own significance.

Years of drought and floods mercilessly show how rediculous our folly is. And now we found the actual value of these "waste lands" . Yet, it is still something positive to beware of the problem and the solution before it’s irreversible.

However, the city's enclosure movement is still prevailing. Facing the unprecedented pressure, how much land can be used for fulfilling the commitment to "keep the water"? Will the land used to keep the water be protected from expropriation? Land requisition is covered in news continuously. Then how many leaders in cities are really determined to employ land for the purpose of ecological protection?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

新疆洼地

穿行在新疆时,发现山脚下公路边有很多人工的洼地,积水为这个相对干旱的地区孕育了许多绿色。面对因全球变暖而流失的淡水,刘师父的点子的确很经典!

Hollow in Xinjiang

While navigating through Xinjiang, found that accumulated water at the hollows by the road side at the foot of mountain, which was create through manual work, has incubated lots of green in this drought area. The lost of fresh water due to the global warming that we encountered, the method by Master Liu is a classic!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

当然,我们需要一些想象力!

听来似乎简单,然而,最佳的解决方式不也就是最普通的常识吗?地下水污染修复和湿地更新是保持生态系统健全的主要步骤,因此中国人应该赞同这一点。我不晓得北京是否每天都消耗百万吨的用水,然而,我认为长远来说,你还是可以将所豁出去给收回来。由此而来,在数十年后的尝试之下, 用水的保存最终会有结果:http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/200608/21/eng20060821_295356.html

Of course we need some imagination!

It sounds simple enough, but aren't most of the best solutions also the most common sense ones? Groundwater revitalization and wetlands renewal are an important step in maintaining a healthy ecosystem, and the Chinese should be applauded for recognizing this.

I don't know if Beijing consumes a million tons of H2O every day, though I would think you can still get out what you put in, in the long run. And water conservation has finally started to bear fruit after decades of trying:

http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/200608/21/eng20060821_295356.html

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

确实, 是与不是

确实: “我试问了水利保持局, 企图寻个明白为什么许昌的地下水在这些年来逐渐的干掉。他们发现,虽然工业或者农业对用水多少造成了影响,然而主因却不在于这一方面所造成的压力,而是我们过度于防范水灾的发生,从而忽略了保存水源。所有的河流管道都被疏通,郊外天然池塘被填补或者池水都被排出。任何时候的降雨,即使是微雨,在还未将土地湿透前,都已经被排到海里。”的确:“中国北部的干旱却直接减少了降雨量。他看了降雨量的数据并且发现了中国北部一些地区的降雨量每年减少700 至800毫米。但是,在1997年与2005年之间,北京的年度降雨量只达466毫米。”绝非:偏低“河水的容量与表面积,引致了缺乏蒸发量,从而影响了区域性的气候,导致降雨量减少而使干旱情况恶化。”降雨主要是来自海水的蒸发,而不是内陆地区。

Yes, yes and No

Yes: "I asked the Water Conservation Department to find out why the ground in Xuchang was getting so much drier every year. They found the main reason was not industry and agriculture’s increasing burden on water resources, although these did have some effect. The main cause was that we were too concerned with flood prevention, instead of water retention. All the river channels had been straightened out, and the natural ponds that used to cover the countryside had either been drained or filled in. Any rain that fell, even light rain, immediately drained away to the sea before it had even wet the soil.”
Yes: "direct cause of the drought is north China’s ever-decreasing rainfall. He looked at rainfall data and found 700-800 millimetres fell every year in some parts of the north China plain. But between 1997 and 2005, the average annual rainfall in Beijing was only 466 millimetres."
No: Lower "volume and surface area of water in rivers, leading to insufficient evaporation, which affects regional climates and leads to a lack of rain – exacerbating the drought."
Rain comes mainly from evaporation from the sea, not from continental areas.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

小水塘

人类有一种希望,是把大地都给碾平;人类也有一种恐惧感,想把所有自然都人工化,以为这样能够让人类获得安全.过去的水塘是人类不小心留下来的,今后,想有心恢复,真的是非常难.据说北京对此颇为积极,但如果要做,首先要改的是雨水的行走路线,让雨水都流到小塘中.如果不改,光铺透水砖,是不够的.一下大雨,仍旧会有大量的雨水被当成洪水排走,而同时,那些缺水的小湖继续干旱.

Little ponds

Man has a hope to flatten the earth. Man also has a fear that unless he manipulates his entire natural environment he will not feel secure.

Small ponds or lakes formed by happenstance, it's just hard to create such ponds as desired. Beijing is said to be enthusiastically active on this issue.

However, the first thing to do should be changing the route of rain water, leading it into the small ponds. Otherwise, it won't work to use water-penetrating bricks only. When the downfall comes, a great amount of water will keep flowing away as floods, while the drought continues, in the arid little ponds.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

野生草的作用

千方百计的留驻雨水,是节约水的好办法,还有在北京的河道两岸还有许多的野生的杂草,它们长的非常茂盛,而且种类很多,有北京的老百姓在周末来这里采菜,而它的上游正在铲除这些杂草,在种上人工的草,长的也不够好,我们认为大可不必这样,野生的草不用人工浇水,也不用人工维护,同时也保护了生物多样性,岂不是两全其美吗!

张王李赵[email protected]

Weeds could be helpful

To do whatever we can do to store rain water is a good way to save water. There are lots of wild plants growing along the river banks in Beijing, many of them are flourishing. Lots of Beijingers go for edible weeds on weekends. However, on the upper stream, workers are getting rid of those weeds, and instead growing grass there, which doesn't grow well. We don't think it is necessary to do so, as the weeds don't need watering or tending, and they also help preserve the biodiversity, so why should we get rid of them?

Zhang-Wang-Li-Zhao
[email protected]

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

矛盾

人口太多,加上开发过度. 恨不得到处是水泥地,楼房,那才叫现代化,点缀些盆景,就叫绿化过了。

Contradiction

Modernisation means overpopulation and overdevelopment. The lanscape is filled by concrete and buildings. Even houseplants can be considered afforestation in this scenario.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

“水的节约与利用、水的开源” (1)

我很钦佩刘师傅。我也将我曾经的建议放在这里,与大家共同讨论:我是一个普通市民,只能通过我所能接触到的事来说这件事。

二、水的开源和环境问题
这里我主要提议利用雨水。雨水回收是一项很好的开源项目。今年,老天爷开恩,痛痛快快地下了很多场透雨。但是我们的回笼雨水建设欠缺,破坏雨水回收的非意识行为越来越多,没能很好地珍惜。随着北京城区地界的扩大,水泥越铺越大,隔绝了土地与水的交融,地下水越来越得不到补充,热岛效应越来越明显,北京地界适宜居住指数逐年降低,繁荣的同时,却与大自然越走越远,我们像在快要干枯的河道中的鱼儿,等待着死亡,老舍笔下当年的北平已不再有了。说实在的,从这一点讲,我很为北京悲哀,相信有同感的人一定很多。

如何利用雨水,在这里我提出我的想法:
1、一定要多种树,种速生树、种双排树,种一片桃林、一片柳林、一片杨林、一片松柏,营造满眼的立体绿色,让“地接上天”。种树与盖楼、铺路进行竞赛!(我的一个学林业的朋友说,树多成林,才有了水汽的蒸发,才能将天上的雨水接下来。这是一个循环。)
2、尽量少铺水泥,要铺则铺渗水砖,多种草坪;树底下的腐叶不要清理(白色垃圾除外),冬天的积雪尽量堆在树根下,不要瓤回马路上……,不要做或少做那些“破坏自然自身的良性循环、破坏雨水回收的非意识行为”。
3、马路改造。现在的马路牙子多是高于路面,雨水来了,都排入污水管中了,北京的马路又这么多。多可惜!有什么技术措施,将路面平于或低于草坪,既可稳固路面,又可将雨水灌入草坪,多余的水能够储存。
北海公园的“团城”是怎么干的?想做,一定有办法。
……
水的节约与利用、水的开源,一定有很多办法,希望市政府向专家、向民间征集,并予以奖励!

zlkyc

Water saving (part one)

I admire Mr. Liu. As an ordinary person, I like to give suggestions on things happening to me for discussion with other readers.

I think the use of rain water is of great significance to tackle water shortage problems.
Though there were abundant rainfalls this year, but we do not have enough facilities to store it and people have less awareness to do so.

The further urbanisation of Beijing is leading to the increased cement construction. As a result, underground water cannot be replenished, and the urban heat island effect becomes stronger.

Beijing is gradually losing all its nature and is becoming less agreeable to live. It has lost its attractions described by China's renowned writer Lu Xun. I am sad for Beijing!

I have some ideas regarding how to make a good use of rainwater.

1. plant more trees, especially fast-growing trees, in two rows.

2. use less cement to build roads. Instead, to use bricks through which rainwater can seep, and to grow more grass.

3. roads should be changed so their edges are usually higher than the road surface, which is better for drainage.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

不要吹毛求疵

对于“2007年7月28日6:11 评论编号 : 1 ”的评论,我不同意:太吹毛求疵了。一个只知追求现代化、一个追逐眼前利益而过于浮躁的社会,刘师傅这样的人太难得了。我们只能大唱赞歌、大力呼吁。至于“数据和科学的分析”,只要想解决,专家和政府有这个能力。我们缺的是全民的认识、企业的自觉。
[email protected]

Don't simply try to find faults

I do not agree with the comment no. 6, dated July 28, 2007, that’s just simply fault-finding. We are pursuing modernization and seeking for the benefit of our present society, it is rare to get such a person as Mr Liu. We do not have any other choice but to praise and to urge their awareness. As far as ‘data and scientific analysis’ concerns, if we just think about solving our problems, experts and government definitely would have the ability. However, we lack the recognition from the public and awareness from industry.