Too little to waste

Boosting supply won’t solve Beijing’s chronic water shortage unless the government also tackles the careless habits of city dwellers, Yin Mingwan tells Jiang Hongtao.

“We’ve been using it for over a decade, how can it just run out?” Mrs Wang lives in the Tianxin Jiayuan complex in the Beijing suburb of Huilongguan, where falling groundwater levels have caused the neighbourhood’s private well to cease functioning. For five months, 5,000 households have been relying on water delivered by tanker. But residents are opposed to the property managers’ plan to dig another well – they want to be hooked up to the municipal pipes, resulting in local deadlock.

As we talk, Wang buys a bottle of water and throws it away half-finished. “Don’t you want the rest?” I ask. She laughs. “It’s OK, there’s drinking water at work. It’s heavy and ruins the look of my bag. I just don’t believe the capital city will run out of water – just wait until the South-North Water Transfer Project is up and running. Then there’ll be nothing to worry about.”

Residents like Wang may be counting the days, or years, to completion of the government’s mega transfer project, a multibillion dollar infrastructure scheme that plans to draw water from rivers in the south of China and pump it to the dry north. But will it really solve the capital’s growing water problems and allow the residents to carry on carelessly wasting water? Everyone is calling for “sustainable development”, but what does that actually mean when it comes to curing Beijing’s chronic water shortages?

Yin Mingwan is senior engineer at the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research. In an interview, he explained to me that the transfer project is just a short-term solution: “Just because there’s demand doesn’t necessarily mean there’s supply to satisfy it, particularly when it comes to water. The transfer project will relieve Beijing’s water shortage for quite some time into the future, and there’ll be no risk of ‘drought’, but it’s not a permanent solution.

“If we don’t plan and manage water consumption, if we just allow a constant and unlimited increase in water demand, one day we’ll reach a point where water shortages are placing limits on urban expansion and social and economic development.”

Shrinking groundwater reserves are one of the most serious causes for concern: “Capturing and using large amounts of surface water, along with the pumping of a lot of groundwater, means groundwater reserves have depleted, as has their ability to be replenished – and that means groundwater levels drop,” said Yin.

He said that wells like the one Wang used to rely on use groundwater under the city to supply an apartment complex or a company – with consequences: “The well shaft acts like a funnel, with the water flowing to the lowest point. If you continue over-extraction, the water level keeps falling and ultimately that may cause subsidence.” Environmental pollution has also affected the quality of groundwater in places, Yin added.

Yin pointed out that Beijing has seen changes in efficiency of water use in recent years. Between 2000 and 2009, there was a clear shift in the structure of water usage: in the past, irrigation accounted for 40.8% of the city’s water usage but that has dropped to 33.8%, while industrial water usage has fallen from 26% to 14.6% and water consumption per 10,000 yuan of GDP dropped from 111 cubic metres to 19 cubic metres – 82.7% less.

However, domestic water consumption has gone in the opposite direction, rising from 33.1% to 41.4% of total consumption. “We’re already using 92% of available water resources, 93.87% if you include water transferred into Beijing,” said Yin. “You could say we’re almost using it all – there’s not much more potential to use locally.”

So what is the solution? According to Yin – tackling demand from the top: “If we don't build reductions into the water system and just rely on the conscience of the people, well, a lot of them will put their own comfort and convenience first and we won’t be able to stop water wastage.” Many of Beijing’s tall buildings were built before reclaimed water systems were standard, and adding them in now is costly, so companies are unlikely to do so of their own accord. “If there was a policy on this, things might improve,” he said.

Also, as Beijing is the political capital, and therefore home to many government departments, non-domestic water wastage is a serious problem – because users in these institutions know the government picks up the bill. Yin said: “Given the rate at which organisations of that kind use water, it is essential to fit water-saving equipment. There needs to be actual sanctions for bodies or individuals who waste water – it can’t just be the appearance of action.” Strict quotas for domestic use could be problematic, but stepped tariffs for domestic and business or governmental consumers may be possible, he added.

Beijing has put quotas on water use for businesses for several years now, with some results, but while it is a good first step, Yin does not believe it is enough: “If we are to avoid water becoming a bottleneck for urban development, the key is to change our industrial structure. In the long term, we need either to move or to close some major water users. The relocation of Shougang Steel is an excellent model.”

In the past, when it was based in the capital, Shougang, China’s leading steel producer, used 50 million cubic metres of water a year. Since relocation to Hebei, it is still using 40 million cubic metres – but the water is mostly reclaimed from a nearby waste-water treatment plant and a desalination plant, which can produce 30 million cubic metres of desalinated sea water annually. This means the relocation of Shougang saved Beijing and eastern Hebei 100 million cubic metres of water annually.

Figures from the State Council’s South-North Water Transfer Project Office show that, of the 155 individual work items involved in the first stage of the project’s east and central routes, 33 (or 21%) have been completed, while 67 (43%) are under construction. According to Yin, completion is due in 2014. Until then, Beijing’s water resources will be under increasing pressure and it is crucial to reduce usage in the short term, particularly as domestic use is both continuing to increase and become the main type of consumption.

“We also need to improve management of the upper reaches of waterways that flow into Beijing from elsewhere, to reduce pollution and conserve that resource,” said Yin. “Similarly, we need to improve protection of water that flows out of our borders, so that those living downstream can use it.” Only then, he said, will we move towards sustainable development.


Yin Mingwan is a senior engineer at the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research and researches the optimal allocation of water resources, the water economy, water pricing and water rights.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Science and Technology Daily. It is edited and published here with permission.

Homepage image by Bert van Dijk