Beijing water price rise backed but lack of alternatives criticised

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 December, 2009, 12:00am

Beijing municipal government held a high-profile hearing yesterday on a proposed 24 per cent water price rise amid worsening shortages and widespread public scepticism.

All but two of the 24 delegates agreed that a price rise seemed necessary to encourage conservation, but many were disappointed that they were not given other options such as rationing, which they believed would be a better and fairer solution.

Beijing is one of more than 20 mainland cities, including Shanghai, Guangzhou and Tianjin , which have raised or are proposing to raise water tariffs this year in the face of public resistance. According to a plan unveiled earlier this month, water prices for domestic use in the city, which is already among the highest on the mainland, will be raised by 0.9 yuan (HK$1.02) per cubic metre from the current 3.7 yuan.

Delegates, including residents, experts, government officials and representatives from businesses, were asked to choose between a one-off plan and another to raise the prices over three years until 2011. The gradual plan was endorsed by 21 delegates. One delegate supported the first option. Two abstained.

Highlighting the immense public interest in the issue, the government website, on which the 3-hour hearing was broadcast live, crashed several times due to unexpected large number of visitors.

The rise, the first since 2004, is mainly aimed at covering soaring costs of water treatment, diversion schemes and reflects the bleak reality of water shortages across the country, Zhang Yuan, a deputy director of the city's development and reform commission, said at the meeting.

Water resources per capita in the country are about 2,200 cubic metres - less than a third of the world average - and will drop considerably over the next two decades, according to the Ministry of Water Resources. Water resources per capita in Beijing were less than 300 cubic metres.

A survey of 36 major cities in July showed average water tariff stood at 3.77 yuan per cubic metre, up nearly 5 per cent from last year. Average water prices in Europe and many other parts of the world are usually four to 10 times higher than those in China.

Although public hearings are usually held before price rises, many internet users expressed frustration that their grievances about soaring living costs were not heeded by the government.

Residents also complained that they were being unfairly targeted, comparing their efforts to conserve water with the excessive consumption at government offices, hotels and industries.

Li Shijie , a member of the city's People's Political Consultative Conference, was one of the two delegates who were opposed to the government's plan for a rise. 'It's fair to say most Beijing residents have already paid a lot of attention to saving water. I cannot agree to any of the options available today because raising water prices will only have an adverse impact on those who conserve and will do little to penalise those who waste water,' he said.

Zhu Yufeng , a resident from Haidian district, said: 'I did a survey in my neighbourhood and most people said they cannot accept another price hike because it is unfair for residents.

'I don't think it's responsible for the government to pin its hopes on price hikes all the time to solve water shortages, which are also partly attributed to poor management,' she said.

Many delegates and experts also said that the government has yet to take action towards adopting a much-anticipated rationing and graduated pricing mechanism.

Qiu Weiduo , a conservation expert in Beijing, said setting quotas for each household and charging higher prices for water use exceeding the quota was a better option than price rises.

Domestic water use took up only a small portion of the country's water consumption, while agricultural waste due to poor irrigation technologies contributed up to 50 per cent, he said.

Current water prices can barely cover the huge cost of disposing millions of tonnes of waste water, said several environmentalists.

'Despite widespread water pollution, it is embarrassingly true that we have to pay a high price for water-saving, yet those who don't care about conservation only face minimum penalties,' said Wang Yongchen , a Beijing-based environmentalist.

Liquid asset

A survey of 36 major cities found the average water tariff, in yuan per cubic metre, was up 5pc cent from last year at: 3.77