Connect to share and comment

China grows thirstier

Beijing's demand slurps up the last drops, as nation faces major water problem.

An old Buddhist temple overshadowed by a coal power plant and transmission towers shows how development reaches far into the Beijing countryside. (Daniel Enking/GlobalPost)

BEIJING, China — Tang Huizhong has watched the water levels in the local river drop over the last 10 years until barely enough remains for fish to make their way upstream.

“The water level is much lower than it used to be. They will be lucky to catch any fish,” said Tang, pointing to men fishing in a canal. “Look, there is not even enough water for the dam to function.”

Next to air pollution, water scarcity looms as one of China's largest environmental disasters. Beijing consumes more water annually than its water resources combined, according to the Chinese Statistical Yearbook 2007. Without intervention, the city will face a massive shortage.

Born in Shanghai, Tang had moved with his family to Beijing in 1951, when he was 2 and has witnessed the explosive development and growthin the city since then. About 10 years ago, he noticed water receding while hiking in the mountains near his home.

“Before, whenever there was heavy rain, the water would flow down the mountain in large streams. But now, the earth is so dry that the water is immediately soaked up,” Tang explained. “When I first moved here, the water in the rivers was deep enough for people to swim in, but now, in some places it is all gone. This is a huge change.”

Scientific data collected over the past decade support Tang’s observations. Yearly water flows into the Yellow River, the largest river in northern China, decreased from 40 billion to 25 billion cubic meters between the early 1980s and 1990s, according to RAND economist Charles Wolf in his 2003 book, "Fault Lines in China's Economic Terrain." RAND is a non-profit research and development institution headquartered in the U.S.

Tang worked at Beijing’s Capital Iron and Steel Co. in 1983, when a mill dominated the small village of Moshikou. With the steel company came large apartment complexes and shopping centers, quickly swallowing the small village, and burdening resources, like water.

“In the 1950s, there were 40 natural wells in the village," he said. "Now, all the wells have dried up except for one. The price of supplying our homes with water has also risen dramatically.”