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China grows thirstier

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

While Tang attended college in the late 1970s and learned mechanical engineering, he did not study global issues and was not encouraged to learn about politics. He learned English in college, but has lost most of it after 30 years. Only by digging for news and information has he come to understand national and international issues such as climate change, resource scarcity and overpopulation.

Tang points to climate change and unchecked industrialization as reasons for water and other ills.

"It is true that there are more people now in the city, using more water. But factories are also large users of water," he said. "For example, there is a nearby river called Yong Ding He. The river has a dam with water behind it, but none in front of it. All the water from this river is used in the steel mill and nearby power plants.”

Industrial water consumption increased 94 percent between 1980 and 1993 and has accelerated throughout the 2000s, according to RAND's Wolf.

From the top of a nearby mountain, one can see the Capital Iron and Steel mill sprawled across the valley floor. Large coal-fired power plants can also be seen lining the hillsides, sitting next to an ancient Buddhist temple.

On Dec. 30, a damaged oil pipeline released diesel oil into a tributary of the Yellow River in the Shaanxi Province. About 150,000 liters leaked out into the river, and oil has been detected far downstream. The Yellow River is a source of water for approximately 140 million residents, as well as many factories and farms in northern China. Three counties in the Shaanxi Province have warned residents not to drink or take supplies from the river water.

During a hike, Tang pointed across the mountain to a small farming village. “See how tall the crops are?” he asked. “They should be much taller by this time of year, but the lack of water is stunting their growth."

In order to combat the massive water shortage, the government has been promoting a policy called nan shui bei diao, Tang said, to divert water from the Yangtze river in the south to supply the north. But the ex-steelworker warns the scheme is "only a short-term solution.”

“The water problem does not just belong to Beijing," he said. "It is national, and even global. I think the only way to solve the problem is to better conserve water.”

This report comes from a journalist in our Student Correspondent Corps, a GlobalPost project training the next generation of foreign correspondents while they study abroad.