Future sold down the river
In almost riverless Beijing, a length of the once-proud but long-arid Yongding River is running again.
As part of a 17 billion yuan (HK$20.8 billion) reclamation effort, water now fills 30 kilometres of river bed in the capital's western suburbs, a stretch parched for nearly three decades.
A steep concrete riverbank now breathes with trees, shrubs and flowers on gentle slopes. Riverside walking trails allow people to get close to the water and savour the landscaping.
After 18 months, workers have built four artificial lakes, including one under the 800-year-old famous granite Lugou Bridge, also known as the Marco Polo Bridge, and designers plan another two. About 180,000 people have visited the restored site since it opened in October.
But as natural as it all looks, the new Yongding is not a flowing river.
The water in the Beijing section is mostly recycled sewage from nearby treatment plants. Drawn from the Guanting Reservoir or captured from rain or floods, the whole enterprise is sustained by three pumping stations and dozens of kilometres of connecting pipes.
Environmentalists mock the effort - China's longest and most expensive attempt at river restoration - as creating a huge water park, rather than reviving a real river. 'It is a huge waste of money,' says Feng Yongfeng, founder of the environmental group Green Beagle.
But officials at the Beijing Water Authority have been proudly showing off the early results of their 170-kilometre project, boasting that they've started to repair decades of environmental damage and create a better economic future for five languishing western districts along the river.
Thrice-treated sewage accounts for 90 per cent of the 130 million cubic metres of water needed to replenish the reach annually. Some of that water, officials note with satisfaction, has found its way to greening the dry river and replenishing aquifers.
But officials admit that the high cost of maintenance for the man-made river - an estimated 50 million yuan a year just for reclaiming water from sewage - makes it impossible to fill the dry river bed in downstream areas with more water.
Despite the difficulties, Professor Liu Shukun, of the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research, said the current design - even with its controversial use of artificial membranes on the riverbed to prevent water seepage - may be the best available option.
'The Yongding River can't flow naturally again,' he said, 'and anti-seepage measures are necessary to ensure adequate water for restoring the ecological system through revegetation.'
The Yongding was once the largest river running through Beijing. From ancient times, the major tributary of the Hai River was the city's main water source.
But a growing Beijing had an insatiable demand for the Yongding's water. The city also had to compete with hydropower and water-intensive industrial projects on the river's upper reaches. Upstream Hebei and Shanxi provinces took their own share of the flow. According to the Beijing Water Authority, there are more than 250 reservoirs upstream, each doing their part to reduce the Yongding's flow and exacerbate water shortages in the capital.
By the early 1980s, a 100-kilometre section of the river that used to nourish the capital had dried up.
The arid river became a key contributor to Beijing's sandstorms and dust pollution. The dried river bed, especially in the city's southwestern areas, became a favourite. dumping ground for sewage and domestic waste. Illegal sand and gravel mining was rampant over the past decade.
'The worsening environment along the river and its catchment areas has seriously tainted Beijng's image and underlined the gap between the reality and the city's vision to become a liveable world-class metropolis,' said Zhang Shiqing, a Beijing Water Authority deputy chief inspector.
Clearly, something needed to be done, but not this, environmentalists say.
They lament that lessons have yet to be learned from the death of the river, long viewed as an egregious example of the destructive impact of the city's runaway expansion, the government's disregard for the environment and man's insatiable thirst for water.
Some even call it a lavish funeral for the Yongding River.
Unlike river restoration projects in the US and other countries, the Yongding scheme fails to remove the hundreds of hydropower dams and reservoirs that are the real barriers to reviving a river and its flow, says Beijing-based water expert Wang Jian.
Instead, says Wang, the project makes such further missteps as the artificial membranes to prevent seepage.
'Yongding River was always a key source of groundwater, but anti-seepage materials will slow or block natural circulation of water,' he said.
'There is an apparent difference between ecological repair - which tends to focus on environmental needs - and profit-driven restoration with an eye towards economic interests.'
Experts also say that Beijing's lavish spending on landscaping and artificial lakes sets a bad example for other drought-hit cities, where similar costly vanity projects are being built or planned.
'How to sustain such an expensive project will be a big question because an improved environment will almost certainly stimulate a property boom and population increase, adding further strains on water scarcity,' Wang said.
Environmentalists also point to the danger of flooding. The Yongding was once famously flood-prone, until the building of the Guanting reservoir in 1949. In recent years the problem has been severe drought. Still, experts warned of the potential risk of flash floods, which may deal a devastating blow to the project.
The water authority's Zhang pooh-poohs the hand-wringing.
'Even if the project is washed away by massive floods in a decade, I still think it's worthwhile because of its enormous positive impact on economic development, which would have turned tangible results by then.'
He said the economic benefits of the project promised to be enormous. Pollution and degradation along the river have seriously hindered development in the Mentougou, Daxing, Fangshan, Fengtai and Shijingshan districts, with a combined population of three million.
But Zhang denies the project was driven mainly by business interests, especially those of the real estate sector, or by local governments' keenness to pursue property development in the relatively less-developed southwestern suburbs.
'Economic growth has already gathered pace in those districts along the river, with an estimated increase of 100 billion yuan in land values alone by the time the whole project is completed in 2014,' Zhang remarked.
As the authorities tell it, the reclamation project is nothing short of a man-made miracle. Municipal authorities plan to repair damaged natural features in the next two years, with revegetation of river banks along the 40-kilometre section to the southernmost border with Hebei.
A fifth artificial lake, covering 90 hectares along a 4.2-kilometre section, is being built in Fengtai district and will be completed next year, just in time to become one of the main sites for an international garden expo scheduled for 2013.
Nevertheless, the project's chief designer, Deng Zhuozhi, of the Beijing Institute of Water, does not pretend that his work is bringing the river back to life. Deng, who previously helped to design the Olympic Green, said he saw the project as a useful experiment of his ideas to restore fraying or dried-up water systems in urban areas and build them into river parks.
Aware of the controversies, Deng said preventing leakage had been the most difficult part of the design and that the artificial membranes worked well in slowing the seepage.
'We've never tried to stop water draining off,' Deng said. 'All we want is to keep water in the lakes a bit longer.'
Besides, said Liu, of the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research, the idea of turning rivers into parks in urban areas was popular around the world.
'The project has apparently improved the urban environment that deteriorated since 1950s, which is good news for both the ecological system and people living along the river,' he said.
Liu said the restoration was part of a bigger plan to harness the Hai River, aimed at tackling pollution and water-scarcity problems in and around the capital.
According to local officials, the capital faces a shortfall of between 500 million to one billion cubic metres of water a year, despite its efforts to improve conservation and efficiency and, this year, the highest rainfall in a decade.
Beijing's per capita water resources are among the lowest of world capitals, hitting a record low of 100 cubic metres this year - far below the internationally acknowledged danger limit of 1,000 cubic metres.
Driven by a looming water crisis, Beijing has been diverting water from arid Hebei and Shanxi provinces and increasing groundwater extraction every year over the past decade.
Despite warnings about long-term consequences and an outcry from neighbouring provinces, this year the municipal authorities put forward a plan to build a diversion project channelling water from the Yellow River along a 500-kilometre canal.
Decades of drought have even prompted growing calls to relocate the capital to a city that isn't threatened by dire water constraints.
'Given Beijing's looming water crisis compounded by chronic drought, it looks unlikely that the water crunch can be eased by diversion attempts,' said Professor Hu Xingdou, a Beijing-based political analyst. 'Mainland authorities should start considering the possibility of relocating the capital in about 10 years' time.'
Authorities should start considering the possibility of relocating the capital in about 10 years' time
The number of cubic metres of water available per person per year in China, just one quarter of the world's average