Last month, the 5th “World Water Congress” was hosted by Beijing – a fitting place to discuss the sustainable use of water resources. A city of 15 million people in a desert is a sure recipe for water shortages and severe ecological problems. Already Beijing’s per capita water supply is around 300 cubic meters; the international cut-off for declaring a region to be experiencing a water shortage is 1000 cubic meters per capita. And Beijing’s groundwater table is significantly overdrawn each year. The same groundwater table serves both Beijing and Tianjin (another huge city nearby); according to the World Watch Institute, this water table has an annual rechargeable supply of 7.1 billion cubic meters, yet it has been used to meet an annual demand of 12.1 billion cubic meters – a demand which is projected to increase in the future. (see http://www.worldwatch.org/node/4407)
But the Chinese government is dealing with this problem – in its typical larger-than-life style. A few years ago, China announced that it would build the world’s largest water diversion project to take water from the Yangtze River to northern China. This project involves the construction of 3 canals, totaling more than 3,000 km (1800 miles), and is expected to be completed around 2050 at a projected cost of more than US$60 billion. Construction has already started on part of one of the canals, in order to divert water to Beijing from reservoirs in the neighboring province of Hebei in time for the 2008 Olympics, according to a recent article in the China Daily (http://www1.china.org.cn/english/environment/171889.htm).
I am struck by the similarity to proposals several decades ago in the United States to divert water from the Yukon to the thirsty and growing desert southwest (as described in Marc Reisner’s classic book “Cadillac Desert”). When I read about this, the concept seemed so absurd, uneconomical, and environmentally disastrous that I couldn’t imagine it ever happening. But once again, China has proven to me that if you take the United States’ environmental problems and blow them up to an even greater scale, the absurd suddenly becomes reality.