The interest was so great that the Beijing government's webcast of the hearing crashed several times in the course of its three and a half hours.
The issue is such a big one for the mainland that the capital is just one of more than 20 cities forced to confront it: water, and how much to charge for it.
Amid worsening shortages, but widespread scepticism, 24 delegates yesterday debated a municipal government proposal to raise water prices by 24 per cent. All but two agreed that a price rise seemed necessary to encourage conservation, but many were disappointed they were not given other options such as rationing, which they believed would be a better and a fairer solution.
'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,' Zhu Yufeng , a delegate who lives in Haidian district, said.
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. Earlier this month it proposed raising water prices for domestic users, which are already among the highest on the mainland, by 90 fen (HK$1.02) per cubic metre from the current 3.70 yuan.
The rise, the first since 2004, is mainly to cover the soaring costs of water treatment and schemes to divert water to Beijing.
It was a reflection of the bleak reality that water is in short supply across the country, Zhang Yuan , a deputy director of the city's development and reform commission - steward of the capital's economy - 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 are less than 300 cubic metres.
The delegates, comprising residents, officials and business representatives, were asked to choose between a one-off rise and gradual increases into 2011.
Twenty-one delegates endorsed the gradual plan, one was opposed, one abstained and one sought a one-off rise.
A survey of 36 major cities in July showed the average water tariff was 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 four to 10 times those on the mainland.
Although public hearings are usually held before prices are raised, many internet users expressed frustration that the Beijing government had not heeded their grievances about soaring living costs.
Residents also complained that they were being unfairly targeted, comparing their efforts to conserve water with the excessive consumption by government offices, hotels and the industrial sector.
Li Shijie , a member of the city's People's Political Consultative Conference, opposed the increases. '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, the Haidian delegate who told the hearing price rises alone were not the answer, said: 'I did a survey in my neighbourhood and most people said they cannot accept another price hike because it is unfair.'
Many delegates said the government had done nothing to implement a much anticipated rationing and graduated-pricing mechanism.
Qiu Weiduo , a conservationist, 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 accounted for only a small part of water consumption whereas farms accounted for up to 50 per cent because ineffective irrigation systems led to waste.
'The crux of the problem is how to strike a balance [between] the public and powerful interest groups,' he said.
Water prices barely covered the huge cost of disposing of millions of tonnes of waste water, several environmentalists said.
'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 minimal penalties,' said one of them, Wang Yongchen .
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