For anyone wishing to understand the water problems facing mainland cities, there is no better place to start than Beijing, where an intrinsic scarcity of water is made worse by a whole range of human and natural factors.
The capital's water shortage has been compounded by chronic drought, pollution, massive wastefulness, delays in building the South-North Water Diversion Project, stalled water pricing reforms and, last but not least, the lack of a sense of crisis within the government.
After a decade-long drought, Beijing has seen more rain than usual this year, with the most rainfall between January and mid-August since 1998 and nearly 20 per cent above average. However, it seems to have done little to quench the capital's thirst. At least 120 million cubic metres of fresh water were pumped from four reservoirs in neighbouring Hebei province in the past month as an emergency solution to Beijing's surging demand this summer, Caijing Magazine reported. 'It is almost like bleeding the disadvantaged dry,' complained a water conservation official in Hebei, one of the driest provinces.
Beijing began channelling water from its arid neighbours, Hebei and Shanxi, in 2003 and sharply increased the diversion from Hebei to as much as 400 million cubic metres a year when it began preparations for the 2008 Olympics.
The people affected - including those in Hubei and Shaanxi who live in water-source areas for the south-north project - have made few attempts to hide their bitterness towards Beijing's runaway expansion and its insatiable demand for fresh water at their expense.
For instance, tens of thousands of Hebei farmers from more than 200 villages near Beijing were forced to turn 6,800 hectares of rice paddies into cornfields from 2007 to save more water for the capital. The meagre compensation they received, 6,750 yuan a hectare, was barely enough to cover their losses. However, their sacrifice still seems far from sufficient to help Beijing avoid a looming water crisis. Beijing's per capita water resources have plunged in recent years and hit a low of 100 cubic metres this year - far below the internationally acknowledged danger limit of 1,000 cubic metres, Xinhua reported in May.
A recent survey in six major cities by Friends of Nature, a mainland environmental group, underscored people's heightened sense of urgency over the worsening water problems. Nearly 90 per cent of Beijing residents said the water shortage - along with water pollution and overuse of groundwater - was a pressing issue that needed to be addressed immediately.
Also, more people blamed Beijing's explosive population growth for the water shortage rather than global warming and a general decline in rainfall - the factors most often cited by mainland authorities. About 73 per cent of Beijing residents also attributed the water shortages to huge wastage, especially by industrial firms, golf courses and parks. Even though the central government had banned new golf courses since 2004, the number in Beijing has rocketed from just three in 1994 to 132 last year, according to a newspaper run by People's Daily.
While local authorities regard golf courses as a symbol of the economic boom and the emerging middle class, each golf course needs at least 3,000 cubic metres of water a day - as much as the usage of 15,000 people. State media estimate that Beijing's golf courses waste 40 million cubic metres of water a year, mostly from groundwater sources a kilometre or more underground.
Beijing's accelerated pumping of water from underground sources, including strategic reserves deep underground, has reduced the level of underground water by 1.2 metres a year since 1999, drastically raising the risks of land subsidence and other geological disasters in and around Beijing.
Such overuse of groundwater is like 'trying to quench thirst by drinking poison', international environmental group Probe International warned three years ago. However, Professor Yang Dongpin, director of Friends of Nature, said heightened public awareness had yet to be translated into tangible conservation results. 'Our awareness is apparently not adequate to handle the worsening crisis because we are all blinded by the glittering skyline of Beijing,' he lamented.
Beijing's mayor, Guo Jinlong, admitted earlier this year that reckless urban expansion and rapid population growth had further strained the city's limited resources, leaving its hopes of becoming a world-class metropolis gravely in doubt. Beijing's population hit 10 million in 1986, nearly 15 million in 2004 and now stands at about 20 million.
Ensuring water supply has become a grave challenge for Beijing's current five-year plan, with municipal authorities facing a gap of 515 million cubic metres a year. Total demand stands at 3.6 billion cubic metres a year, including annual household water usage of 2.5 billion cubic metres. Yet water-rationing efforts as part of water pricing reforms in Beijing have been long delayed due to strong opposition from government officials and powerful interest groups, according to former water resources minister Wang Shucheng.
Critics say the lack of urgency among government officials and their often deliberate disregard of the problems are arguably more worrying than the chronic shortage itself. A full-blown water crisis may strike soon, they warn, if Beijing continues to ignore unsustainable urban expansion and the unequal and essentially unjust distribution of water resources.