Water-Stressed Beijing Exhausts Its Options

After depleting groundwater reserves, China’s capital is becoming increasingly reliant on water pumped from the country’s flood-prone South.

The dark openings of two pipelines beneath the Yellow River, like eyes on a flat face of dirt and rock, are unblinking witnesses to the South-North Water Transfer Project. Photo © Aaron Jaffe / Circle of Blue

The Rundown

Beijing’s 21 million residents are running out of water sources. Heavy reliance on groundwater is depleting aquifers and causing land subsidence. An ambitious South-to-North water diversion project likely won’t provide enough water for Beijing long-term. In addition, nearly 40 percent of Beijing’s surface water is too polluted for use.

According to World Bank metrics, a city is experiencing acute water scarcity if resources fall below 500 cubic meters per person per year. In 2014, Beijing averaged only 145 cubic meters of fresh water per person per year. Beijing hopes to cap its population at 23 million by 2020 due to the city’s severe water stress, but the scarcity is only expected to worsen as China grows.  

“When I first arrived to Beijing 60 years ago, there were springs everywhere. Some bubbled up half a meter high. There were rice paddies. But now the population’s increased sevenfold, and there are seven ring roads around the city. That abundant supply of water is gone.”Liu Changming, a retired hydrologist for the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, in reference to the depletion of water sources in Beijing.

By The Numbers

7 percent Proportion of the world’s fresh water that is in China, home to 20 percent of the global population.

2,700 miles Length of China’s $60 billion South-to-North water diversion project. Eighty percent of China’s fresh water is in the southern part of the country.

70 percent Proportion of Beijing’s water supply that comes from the South-to-North water diversion project.

4.3 inches Amount that Beijing’s Chaoyang zone is sinking each year. Groundwater depletion is causing land subsidence throughout the city.

39.9 percent Proportion of Beijing’s water that is too polluted for use, according to a 2017 water quality report.

1.98 million cubic meters Amount of untreated wastewater that was discharged in Beijing in 2015. The water has been ruled unsafe for agricultural and industrial use.

On The Radar

Currently, China’s South-to-North water diversion project is providing the bulk of Beijing’s water supply. The project, which is two-thirds complete, comprises of three massive aqueducts. The project is expected to reach maximum capacity in 2019, but China’s water demand is increasing so quickly that additional solutions will be needed.

Other attempts have been made at boosting Beijing’s water supply. The government has introduced educational programs and rate increases for heavy industrial users. The city’s airport has minimized water use and improved wastewater treatment. Ultimately, there is only so much that Beijing can do. The future of the city’s water will largely be determined by overarching government actions, such as policies relating to agriculture and pollution.

A recent shake-up in the country’s environmental ministry may bode well for future improvements. China is consolidating its land, water, and agriculture ministries into the wider-reaching Ministry for Ecological Environment. In an attempt to combat pollution, the ministry will implement new laws and set up monitoring systems. The ministry will also take responsibility for the South-to-North water diversion project. The government hopes the changes will lead to better coordination as China addresses the environmental problems caused by decades of rapid development.

Resources And Further Reading

In context reporting by Circle of Blue:
Groundwater Pumping Sinks Beijing Region at Increasing Rate
Choke Point: China

A warning for parched China: a city runs out of water (MarketPlace)
Beijing airport, China’s largest, makes progress on greening operations (UN Environment)
Beijing to try to cap population at 23 million by 2020 (Reuters)
China shake-up gives climate change responsibility to environment ministry (Reuters)
In China, the water you drink is as dangerous as the air you breathe (The Guardian)
World’s Largest Water Diversion Plan Won’t Quench China’s Thirst (Bloomberg)
The 11 cities most likely to run out of drinking water – like Cape Town (BBC)

Kayla Ritter is a recent graduate of Michigan State University, where she studied International Relations and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. She is currently based in Manton, Michigan. Kayla enjoys running, writing, and traveling. Contact Kayla Ritter

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