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Saving Beijing’s reservoirs

As the Olympics approaches, the Chinese capital's fragile water supply is in the spotlight. Jiang Gaoming explains how to prevent contamination risks in Beijing’s water – and ensure an adequate supply.

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An environmental volunteer I know in the town of Chicheng, Hebei province, recently emailed me to say that an elementary school was dumping excrement directly into a local river. The school paid about 1,000 yuan (US$143) to have the waste from its toilets taken away and dumped into the Hei River, which feeds into the Miyun Reservoir, from which Beijing draws much of its water. My friend, outraged, made a video of the process to show as evidence of the pollution entering Beijing’s drinking water. 

Beijing suffers from a severe lack of water: the quantity of water available per head is only one-thirtieth of the global average. Guanting Reservoir, the first major reservoir to be built after 1949, drew water from a 43,000-square-kilometre basin. Once completed, it provided a total of 39.6 billion cubic metres of water and irrigated 1.1 million mu (734 square kilometres) of land. However, upstream industrial and economic activity reduced the flow and polluted the water. The quality of the water fell to class five or worse, which forced Beijing to stop drawing water from Guanting in 1985. The city now takes its water from the Miyun and Huairou reservoirs. But the outlook for the Miyun Reservoir is not good: the amount of water it can supply is plummeting, and it suffers from an excess of nutrients. As well as the dumping of excrement, this is also caused by the surface run-off from fertilisers and pesticides.

Although Beijing is improving its protection of water sources and has had some successes, there are still major problems, particularly when it comes the city’s poor use of funds. Liu Baoshan, chair of the city’s rural affairs committee, says that of the 150 million yuan (US$21.5 million) fund to protect water sources, only 80 million yuan (US$11.5 million) was actually used for this purpose. Of Beijing’s 547 minor river basins, 266 remain untreated. At the current rate of progress – treating 20 rivers a year – it will take 13 years to even complete even the first stage of the process. This will not quickly improve Beijing’s water sources – as is needed – particularly when, in some cases, “treatment” actually makes the problem worse. The project will also fail to deal with problems further upstream and out of reach of the Beijing government.

The protection of upstream water sources in China tends to mean the creation of forests; little attention is paid to pollution from agriculture or animal and human excrement. Beijing plans to spend 100 million yuan (US$14.3 million) between 2007 and 2011 assisting Zhangjiakou and Chengde, in Hebei province, to complete a 200,000-mu (134 square kilometres) project to protect water sources. Other measures include extending a project designed to protect Beijing and Tianjin from sandstorms to cover restoration of vegetation and the protection of water sources. But there are no projects aimed at reducing pollution from manufacturing, agriculture and the general population – including the question of excrement.

In fact, excrement is a useful agricultural resource; currently, it is even a scarce one. Modern agriculture has replaced organic fertilisers with chemical alternatives and pesticides. This presents a major challenge to the protection of water sources. Policies must also account for the interests of local people in poor areas. Beijing could, at no great cost, change the way upstream agriculture operates and encourage the use of organic fertilisers instead of chemicals; the use of straw to feed livestock; dung to fuel methane power generation; and the by-products used as fertiliser – rather than being dumped into rivers. Beijing’s consumers could enjoy organic products produced upstream, the farmers could have a secure income and the rivers would be cleaner.

Based on studies and discussions with experts, I recommend that Beijing focuses its efforts in the following way:


First, establish an Environmental Security Reserve for Beijing water sources that includes the Miyun, Guanting and Huairou reservoirs, which can ensure water quality and adequate water supplies in accordance with the State Council’s guidelines on environmental protection. Under the leadership of the Ministry of Water Resources, and with close cooperation between the city of Beijing and the provinces of Hebei and Shanxi, a unified mechanism should be established to solve the current problems of decentralised management. Once this is established, land use can be adjusted and planned scientifically.


Second, use market mechanisms to link water consumption downstream with water protection upstream, forming a positive feedback mechanism. Upstream areas should change traditional land use patterns, reduce population and livestock pressures and free up large areas of land for forests and grasslands – areas that currently produce agricultural products instead of water. Compensation for this will be provided from Beijing’s water bills. Any remaining agriculture should be organic, using human and animal excrement as fertiliser, which will increase income from the land while reducing and ultimately abandoning the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.


Third, ecological management must be linked to poverty alleviation and wealth creation. The challenges faced in protecting water sources are manmade problems. We should take the initiative by helping these areas solve energy problems with methane production technology and a more distributed infrastructure. We must also help with hygiene by building waste and water treatment plants. This will ensure the areas have adequate vegetation coverage, produce enough water, and it will guarantee that the water flowing into reservoirs is clean.


There is no time to waste in protecting Beijing’s water sources: it is an issue that impacts on the safety of Beijing’s residents, our national image and the success of the Olympics. We must act soon. Everyone involved should work closely together to create a program for sustainable water use, solve these problems and improve the environmental quality of the areas providing the capital’s water.

Jiang Gaoming is a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany. He is also vice secretary-general of the UNESCO China-MAB (Man and the Biosphere) Committee and a member of the UNESCO MAB Urban Group.

Homepage photo by pretty.face

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The benefits of living in Beijing

Living in Beijing is a real blessing, since all other places have to make sacrifices to ensure Beijing's water and electricity supply. It is really sad to think that places like Hebei and Shanxi, which suffer from water shortages themselves, still have to contribute water to Beijing.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Any insider’s comments on Beijing’s water crisis?

Rumour has it that out of concern over possible public criticism over the transfer of water from four reservoirs in Hebei to Beijing, the Beijing government has put the project on hold. Reportedly Beijing will try and meet water demands during the Olympic Games with its local water reserves. That means tapping into groundwater resources. Up until now, groundwater already accounts for two-thirds of the overall water supply in Beijing.

A few questions remain unanswered when it comes to Beijing water resources. How much water is left in Beijing? To what extent is Beijing’s water in crisis? In recent years, over-extraction of groundwater has caused a series of environmental problems, including ground subsidence. How long will the current over-extraction go unaddressed?

There still exists the lavish use of water resources everywhere in Beijing. Experts compare Beijing to Israel in terms of water shortages. However, flood irrigation of green space can be seen everywhere in the city. Newly-licensed vehicles are being packed onto the over-crowded roads of Beijing everyday. Has anyone ever bothered to take an account on how much water will be consumed washing these vehicles? With few water-saving technologies, farming accounts for half of Beijing’s overall water consumption.

And the problem of water pollution is coming to the fore. Other pollutants aside, Beijing generates 15,000 tonnes of solid waste each day. The disorderly disposal of rubbish is posing a threat to groundwater. The water transferred from the south causes underground water levels to rise, which affects some buildings via increased water pressure, as well as making numerous rubbish dumping grounds pollution spots.

The list of problems can go on and on. But the biggest problem is that the truth is being hidden from us. If only the whole picture were fully revealed before the public, everyone would pool in his own effort to help overcome the crisis. The authorities need to summon enough courage to tell us the truth.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Comment 2 by an expert

Comment 2 is great. Does anybody know the amount of water available in China?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我相信原文在理论上提出了很好的方案,但在实际中很难执行这些保护和处理饮用水的措施。如果能够运用市场机制把下游的水资源消费和上游的水源保护结合起来,将会是个不错的做法,但市场不能解决这个问题所涉及的所有外部因素。要使上游的农民遵守为下游居民提供清洁饮用水所需的相关政策和法规几乎是不可能的。作者提出的方案很好,只是我不认为可行。第二条评论也很好,但我不认为新增轿车的洗车用水有什么可忧虑的,我觉得有点言过其实了。 —kyle

Can these ideas really work?

I believe that the original article sounds good in theory, but in the real world it is going to be much harder to implement these ideas on how to conserve and treat the available drinking water. It would be a great idea to link water consumption downstream with water protection upstream using market mechanisms, but the market does not account for all the externalities that are involved in this issue. It would be nearly impossible to get the farmers upstream to comply with the policies and regulations that are needed to clean up the water for downstream users. It is a wonderful idea, I just dont think it will work. Comment number two also sounds good but I dont think we should be worried about wasting water from washing all the new cars that will be on the roads. That sounds a like a push to me.
~ kyle

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


国内南部地区的地下水位已下降一米多。甚至在北京,每年人均供应量只为300立方米(约66,000加仑)(Tina Butler, Monabay.com)。中国的人均水资源量是世界人均的最低水平。

更可悲的是,由于北京市民对用水的高需求量而导致数百万农村人一辈子没有可能得到安全的饮水供给。中国需要大量投资淡化海水。对目前受污染并且日益减少的清洁水源,淡化海水似乎是唯一的选择。– Chad


In the northern region of the country, the water table has dropped more than a meter. Even in Beijing, the water supply per capita is only 300 cubic meters (66,000 gallons) per year (Tina Butler, Monabay.com). China's water resources are nearly the lowest per capita in the world.

And yes, its very sad that the "high" water demand in Beijing causes millions of rural Chinese a life without safe drinking water. China needs to heavily invest into desalinization of sea water. With China's polluted and shrinking fresh water resources, they are left only the option of looking to the sea.

- Chad

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Controlling the scales of towns and cities is an emergent task now.

Beijing’s water crisis sends a clear message to China’s unchecked urbanization process – enough is enough. Yet still governments at every level are sparing no effort in expanding their respective cities (as can be seen in their five or ten-year plans for development), especially those in small cities. No doubt city expansion can attract tourists and boost local economy, but it also wreaks destruction to local environment. Generally, the harms outweigh the benefits.

I believe China’s urbanization should prioritize the development of intermediate and small cities, townships and villages. As for larger cities, the growth of population can be allowed its natural course, but the occupation of farmland has to be strictly controlled, which will make housing prices soar, thus curbing the rapid growth of urban population due to immigration. On the other hand, the low housing prices in the countryside, along with improved infrastructure preferably, will make people settle down, even reverse the rural-to-urban flow of population. This is the right path China’s urbanization should follow. When I was studying in Britain, my most favorite place was not London or Birmingham, but its beautiful countryside.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




As Kyle stated in comment 4, the ideas presented in article sounds great in a perfect world but unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world. The problems that have been occurring throughout China in regards to its drinking water have occurred due to people cutting corners in order to save or gain money. Corruption has also made any policies to protect the environment highly ineffective. The article states that only 80 million yuan was used to protect waters sources when 150 million yuan was funded; this makes me wonder where the rest of the 70 million yuan went. I believe the best thing anyone can do to improve the water problem would to educate everyone they know on the seriousness of the matter. Like most things in this world, it is a battle of minds. I can only hope that through proper education of the problem, people will be less likely to pursue a means to an end that can threaten China’s water supply.


Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous














Diffrent opinions from the author

I respect the author, however I do not think it is appropriate to offer “scientific suggestions” just on the basis of some pictures and figures as Mr Jiang does in the article.

All those who are familiar with environmental protection in and near Beijing know that the city of Zhang Jiakou, situated on the upper reaches of rivers feeding the reservoirs in Beijing, has made a big sacrifice for the development of Beijing. It is known that Zhang Jiakou has been always trying to protect the water resources of Guanting Reservoir. Currently, water quality in the reservoir is quite good.

Decreasing water and increasing sedimentation in the reservoir is a result of degrading ecosystem in the region, rather than the management and governance problems in Jiang Jiakou. The problems in excrement treatment and pollution resources in Beijing are as serious as those in Zhang Jiakou.

Hebei is regarded as a resource for drinking water in Beijing. However, there are no signs to show that Beijing will initiate the communication with Hebei for the sake of protection of water resources. Who should be responsible for the protection of reservoirs in Beijing, Hebei or Beijing?

After calculation, I found that the figures Mr. Jiang quoted are baseless. Is it possible to just spend 500 yuan (70 US dollars) for water retention on every mu of land? If so, Beijing should have funded many similar projects in neighboring areas.

Also we have to recognize that the gap in economic strength between Zhang Jiakou and Beijing is expanding. Many counties in Zhang Jiakou are still very poor. So what we need to consider and discuss is how to achieve sustainable and harmonious development in both Zhang Jiakou and Beijing without ignoring the fact of widening gap between the two.

What I would like to suggest are more funding from Beijing to ensure ecosystem improvement in Zhang Jiakou, no more giant industrial projects allowed in Zhang Jiakou, no more vehicles running on the road, and etc.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



re: educate

Hey JJ, Who are you saying we should educate: the people, the government, or foreign nations? Or do you mean all of these groups? Would the education focus on using less water? I dont think the people have much power in China, so i dont know how much progress will be made from educating them. I still think the problem needs to be solved with desalinization, which will be pursued by the Chinese government and foreign nations. All of Chinas dams and water diversion projects cost billions and take seriously long amounts of time. This water will not even reach millions of rural residents. Research and development in desalinization should receive higher funds in policy decisions because China does not have enough water. End of story.

- Chad

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Reply to the author of comment No.8

You make a good point. First I would like to clarify that I didn’t speak for Beijing municipal government. And I didn’t mean to point a finger of blame at Hebei government in this article. I only voiced some personal views on this issue.

Your suggestions share some common ground with mine. The core of my viewpoint is to solve the non-point pollution in the upper reaches of the rivers through ecological means. But in reality, these measures are ignored and money is spent elsewhere rather than where it is needed. No doubt the livelihood of farmers upstream should be taken into account. While urban residents downstream desperately need both clean water and organic farming product, both of which can be sold at a price. Beijing or the central government should launch some pilot program to help establish a market mechanism concerning water resources protection. Our experiences in Inner Mongolia and Shandong province show this is a matter of willingness, rather than feasibility. Policy-makers simply don’t realize the fact that popular involvement through market mechanism is the key to the solution of ecological restoration and water resource protection. –Jiang gaoming