Beijing is considering diverting water from the Yellow River in an attempt to relieve its chronic water shortage, which is rapidly approaching a crisis level with the capital's overpopulation and worsening droughts.
An official at the Beijing Water Authority yesterday confirmed a report by the Beijing Times that a new diversion project channelling water from the river through a 500-kilometre canal had emerged as the new hope for the grave water woes.
The municipality also planned to pump more water from arid Hebei and Shanxi provinces, increase groundwater extraction this year and step up research on desalination, the report said. Environmentalists warn that water diversions and the overuse of groundwater may carry dire long-term consequences.
They also lambast the capital as having set a terrible example of urban management, marked by runaway expansion at the expense of neighbouring areas.
The drinking water sources for the municipality of nearly 20 million people - the Miyun and Guanting reservoirs - can barely supply half of the household water consumption, which stands at 2.5 billion cubic metres a year. A 12-year drought has made the shortage worse. Beijing has not seen any precipitation since October 25 - which was 92 days ago.
Years of pumping more and more water from sources, including strategic reserves deep in the ground, had lowered the level of underground water by 1.2 metres a year since 1999, the authority's director Cheng Jing was quoted as saying.
Delays in building the central route of the South-North Water Diversion Project - aimed at channelling as much as 1 billion cubic metres of water from the Han River, a major tributary of the Yangtze - have also dashed the capital's hopes of seeing any early relief.
Beijing would face grave challenges in ensuring water supply before the Yangtze diversion project began to deliver in 2014, Mayor Guo Jinlong admitted last week at the municipal people's congress. Despite its efforts on water conservation and efficiency in the past five years, it faces a gap of 515 million cubic metres a year; its total demand stands at 3.6 billion cubic metres a year.
A new reservoir in Hebei would be added this year to the list of six - four in Hebei and two in Shanxi - that were involved in Beijing's water diversion scheme, the newspaper said.
The capital has long pinned its hopes on its neighbours to solve its water woes. Hebei and Shanxi began delivering water in 2003, especially in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics, water expert Wang Jian said. Official figures showed up to 400 million cubic metres was pumped to Beijing to ensure a successful Games.
Its new plan was tipped to aggravate hard feelings harboured by residents in neighbouring provinces, which are suffering from severe drought and shortages of their own.
Citing senior local water officials, the newspaper - operating under the People's Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece - yesterday said about 300 million cubic metres of water would be transferred from the Yellow River to the capital. Officials conceded that even with water diverted from the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, Beijing would still have to cope with a lack of 190 million cubic metres a year. Wang said: 'The current mode of development ... is by no means sustainable, and we won't be able to avoid a crisis without curbing population growth and stopping the city's expansion.'