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Water Is Running Out in China

A severe shortage and wasteful water-use habits threaten to leave northern provinces thirsty

CRISP, ripe watermelons cooled under running taps are a traditional panacea for millions of Beijing residents seeking respite from the heat and dust of summer. But as the peak water use months of June to September begin, a severe water shortage threatens to leave the capital's thirst for cold melon, long showers, and other aqueous luxuries unquenched.

Like meandering cracks on a sunbaked earthen pot, rivers are running bone dry through the scrub-topped hills and arid flatlands that surround the city.

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The flow of water into Beijing's largest reservoir, Miyun, is dropping daily, officials say. Guanting Lake, the other major reservoir supplying the city's 10 million residents, is drying up.

And hard-to-replenish groundwater in and around Beijing is falling so drastically from overtapping that the city is slowly sinking, according to the official newspaper, Beijing Daily.

``If [the water shortage] is not solved ... there is a danger that we'll have to move the capital,'' Mayor Chen Xitong warned in a speech not long ago.

Officials in charge of water resources envisage ``paralysis'' of the city, with factory shutdowns, loss of crops, and water cutbacks for residents unless steps are taken to curb demand and channel in fresh supplies.

Without such measures, they predict that by the year 2000 Beijing will face a crippling daily shortfall of 550,000 cubic meters (715,000 cubic yards) of water, or two-thirds of what city waterworks supply today.

``Beijing is facing an intense water shortage problem,'' says Chen Chunhuai, a senior official at the Ministry of Water Resources. ``If this continues for two more years, Beijing won't survive,'' he said in an interview.

The water crisis is not limited to Beijing. Severe water shortages are plaguing the whole North China Plain, a densely populated region with some 200 million inhabitants that stretches from Beijing almost to the Yangtze River. Experts predict that the region will have 6 percent less water than needed by the end of the century.

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Several factors, both natural and man-made, have combined to create the problem:

The North China Plain is a semiarid region with a paucity of rainfall. Precipitation is about 600 mm (234 in.) annually and drought is common. With half the country's cultivated land, the North China Plain receives less than 10 percent of total surface water, official figures show.

In Beijing and the major seaport of Tianjin, water resources per capita are about 390 cubic meters (507 cubic yards) a year - less than one-sixth of China's national average, and only 4.7 percent of the world average.

Demand for water in north China is growing faster than the supply, and consumption by industry, agriculture, and the fast-growing population of the region is surging, especially in major cities like Beijing.

Water use in Beijing is expected to increase 50 percent by the year 2000, while in the industrial city of Tianjin, the projected increase is 120 percent. However, 70 percent of the known water resources in north China have already been tapped, official reports say.

Decades of massive waste caused by underpricing, poor water management, and technological backwardness have exacerbated the existing shortage.

In Beijing, residents pay only 2 1/2 (US) cents per ton of tap water, or about the price of a popsicle. Factories and workplaces pay 5 cents a ton. But the government pays 12 cents a ton to provide the water.

``The government subsidizes water so people waste it,'' says Daniel Okun, an engineer at the University of North Carolina who has advised China on how to improve its water management.

Many Chinese city dwellers pay nothing for much of the water they use. Employees enjoy free showers at the workplace, and communal faucets in residential quarters encourage waste.

Chinese industry, which technologically lags decades behind developed countries, consumes millions of tons more water than necessary. For example, a 1989 study showed that steel mills in Hebei Province, which neighbors Beijing, used 330 tons of water to produce every ton of steel - compared with only 10 tons of water in some developed nations.

The least efficient use of water takes place on farms. Over the past 25 years under Maoist policies urging regional self-sufficiency in grain production, the consumption of irrigation water in north China has swelled sixfold, official studies show.

Yet some 60 percent of the irrigation water is lost in transit, evaporating or seeping through earthen irrigation ditches. As peasants pay almost nothing for water, they lack an incentive to make the ditches more watertight or introduce more efficient sprinkler or drip-irrigation systems.

The government has permitted such waste to continue by tapping ancient groundwater reserves, which are falling faster than they can be replenished.

In the past, north China relied mainly on shallow, surface water, which rainfall restored each year, to meet its economic needs. Many crops, such as sorghum and millet, were grown on rainfall alone.

But in the late 1960s, Maoist officials began widespread tapping of groundwater for irrigation in an ill-conceived plan to expand grain production across the North China Plain. As a result, the groundwater level in some areas has plummeted 80 meters (87 yards), says Mr. Chen, who is an engineer.

``They had an incorrect impression of how much groundwater we had,'' Chen says.

Since the 1970s, the rapid depletion of groundwater has continued unabated, causing the land to sink where the water level drops. In Beijing, where half the water comes from underground sources, the land has sunk more than 0.5 meters (20 in.) in some areas in the 1980s, official figures show.

Some Chinese government experts argue that the only way to resolve north China's water crisis is to divert fresh supplies from water-rich southern China. They call for building a gigantic, multi-billion dollar diversion project to channel water from the Yangtze River up the ancient Grand Canal to north China (see sidebar).

Critics, however, view such a diversion project as merely an expensive way for the government to postpone further tough political decisions ultimately needed to improve the pricing and allocation of water.

``A diversion would allow people to continue their present production strategy,'' says John Dixon, a US economist who joined Chinese government researchers in a recent study of the water shortage in north China.

Mr. Dixon recommends that Beijing and other north China communities take steps to reduce the demand for water by raising prices, recycling, reducing leakage, and reallocating water away from agriculture to more efficient users.

``Trying to live with the water they have is a much more sustainable pattern,'' Dixon says.

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