Wednesday, November 21, 2007

An iron room

Dai Qing has a fascinating piece in the latest New York Review of Books about water and the Beijing Olympics:
While the farmers living on the outskirts of greater Beijing are given strictly controlled allocations of water, in central Beijing the people in charge are celebrating the construction of the ultimate "water follies" which will be ready in time for the Olympic year. These include the vast lake that will surround the titanium, egg-shaped National Grand Theater next to the Great Hall of the People, just off Tiananmen Square, as well as the largest fountain in the world at the Shunyi "Water Heaven"—one that can shoot 134 meters high. The Shunyi water park has been built on the dried-out remains of the Chaobai River—no irony intended. And then there are the hundred golf courses that have been laid out in greater Beijing. These infamous "water guzzlers" occupy over 20,000 acres of land and their imported turf has become a serious drain on the city's dwindling water resources.

Perhaps if this spectacle had been held three hundred years ago, or even a hundred years ago, the environment of Beijing might have been able to sustain it. After all, the city is surrounded by mountains on three sides, has five major water sources, and once had numerous lakes and marshes with underground springs constantly welling up and disgorging crystal-clear water. It was a rich and fertile place, and was home to five imperial capitals. But today Beijing is entirely different. Its reservoirs are 90 percent dry, and all of its rivers flow at historically low levels. The aquifer under Beijing has been drastically lowered by long-term overuse.

Is all of this just because of climate change? Certainly the city has been afflicted by drought for the past eight years, but the problems are more fundamental. Since 1949, the Beijing metropolitan area has experienced an eightfold population increase (growing from 2.2 million in 1948 to 18 million today). The city itself covers a geographic area that is fifty times larger, and uses thirty-five times as much water. Even the consumption of whiskey has increased one-hundred-fold in recent years. And what of the city's water, that precious commodity without which no one—young or old, rich or poor—can survive? On average, Beijing people have only three hundred cubic meters of water resources per capita, one eighth of the Chinese average—which is 2,200 cubic meters— and one thirtieth of the world average.

But during the Olympic Games, Beijing will enjoy an unprecedented supply of water. Special pipes will bring unpolluted water from the provinces to provide for the whole city, allowing people to enjoy potable water from their taps for the first time—but only for as long as the games last. Meanwhile, when the crowds watch and applaud the Olympic performances at the aquatic events, neither they nor the athletes will be aware that they are not really competing on the waters of Beijing's original Chaobai River. The "river" they will be using is an artificial creation made by damming the two ends of a long-dry riverbed and filling it with water pumped from deep underground.

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