News >Bizchina

Dry up city's water shortage by using less

2011-01-11 14:32

Dr Johnson famously said: "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." The same could be said about the impact of water shortages on officials.

For more than four decades Beijing has faced a chronic and worsening water shortfall caused by the growing mismatch between its population, which has quadrupled since 1949, and diminishing surface water caused by four decades of drought.

This drought has been especially bad since 1999, and with this winter's dry spell, the city may see its latest snowfall on record.

Dry up city's water shortage by using less

Until very recently, Beijing has mainly focused on the supply side of the water problem. It has claimed some surface water from neighboring provinces, especially Hebei, and pumped groundwater at an accelerating pace. The city has also counted on the massive North-South Water Diversion Project - slated to provide it with 1.4 billion cubic meters of water annually - to slake its growing thirst.

However, the date at which the city will begin receiving this water has been pushed back from 2009 to 2014.

This delay, coupled with the continued drawing down of surface water outside of Beijing and the depletion of its groundwater, has concentrated the minds of local government officials on conserving scarce water. And that is very good news because conservation offers the best way out of the current water crisis.

The most important step has been to begin realistically pricing water. In 2009, Beijing officials announced that residential water prices would rise by 8 percent, following a 50 percent jump in the price for non-residential use.

As Zheng Yefu, a Peking University sociology professor, argued in an article published in 2009, these higher prices will force consumers to understand water's true value. For many years, subsidized prices have encouraged wasteful consumption.

In a Dec 17, 2009 China Daily article, Wang Jian, who studies Beijing's water consumption for the NGO Green SOS, estimated that the city could save 190 million cubic meters of water annually if residents used it less extravagantly. That figure is double the capacity of the Guanting Reservoir.

Wang and Liu Qiong, a researcher at the College of Water Science, Beijing Normal University, advocate an inclining water price structure, in which fees increase as use rises in pre-determined increments.

Residents would pay a low fee for the first increment covering basic needs and those who use more for non-essential purposes, like filling swimming pools, would pay much bigger fees.

The city should also promote conservation by subsidizing purchases of efficient shower nozzles and the like.

Beijing also intends to crack down on heavy water users, including the bath industry. According to the environmental NGO Friends of Nature, the bathing industry consumes enough water each year to fill up Kunming Lake 41 times. Businesses lacking water-saving devices could face heavy fines.

And the city will focus on recycling water. While recycled water is now heavily used by factories and for municipal horticulture, the supply, according to Yu Yaping, the Beijing Water Authority's spokesman, still falls short of demand in these sectors.

Thus, the city must also significantly expand and upgrade its water treatment system to supply these needs and for other uses.

For example, Beijing's carwash industry, which will grow as automobile ownership rises, uses 30 million tons of water annually, little of it had been recycled.

With North-South Water Diversion Project water not likely to reach Beijing until 2014 at the earliest, the city has no choice but to conserve.

Finally, the North-South Water Diversion Project does not eliminate the ongoing need for conservation.

Its water is only enough to supply about one fourth of Beijing's current needs, and should be used to complement conservation efforts, not as an excuse to revert back to wasteful water consumption.

Now that local officials are clearly serious about water conservation, I am hopeful that they also feel this way. If that is the case, we can be optimistic about Beijing having enough water in the future.

Related News: