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Beijing's Water Policies Add to Crisis, Report Says

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By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 27, 2008

BEIJING, June 26 -- Beijing says it will host a green Olympics this August, but to keep taps flowing and parks beautiful, the city will rely on "shortsighted" measures and large-scale engineering projects rather than conservation-oriented laws and incentives, according to a new report.

Decades of drought and pollution of city reservoirs, plus population growth and bustling industrial development, have left the capital in a water crisis, it says.

Now, with water use expected to surge by 30 percent during the Games, the city's policies are further straining scarce resources, according to the report released Thursday by Probe International, a Toronto-based environmental monitoring group.

To show off a lush and modern capital for the Olympics, expected to draw 500,000 foreign tourists and as many as a million domestic visitors, Beijing has developed man-made lakes, streams and musical fountains.

A massive canal project will pump 300 million cubic meters of water to Beijing this summer as part of a controversial effort to use the Yangtze River and China's greener, southern regions to replenish the parched north.

Farmers in surrounding Hebei province, meanwhile, have been ordered to grow corn instead of rice (a water-intensive crop) so that more of their water can be diverted to the capital.

Beijing would be better off curbing demand through efficiency improvements and using laws and economic incentives to regulate consumption, the report says.

Instead, Beijing last year built a $57 million underground pipeline to divert water from the polluted Wenyu River to fill the dried-out Chaobai River, near the Shunyi Olympic Aquatic Park. The water, unsuitable for any human use including irrigation, is meant to improve the scenery around the park during the Games. Residents, however, complain that the water is black and smells like sewage, the report says.

In the city's western Haidian district, it says, officials built a huge "water landscape" featuring a fountain, lights and music, but the fountain is expected to operate only during the Olympic opening ceremony and national holidays because of high operating costs.

In the Olympic Village, a man-made lake will be filled with water diverted from the Qing River and treated at a nearby plant.

Historically, "the political fixation on large-scale engineering projects to keep urban taps flowing at little or no cost to consumers meant that consumption was divorced from consequence," the report says.

"With each new project to tap water somewhere else, demand for water only increases, and at an ever greater cost to China's environment and economy," it says. "Whether diverting surface water or digging ever-deeper for groundwater, the underlying solution proposed is like trying to quench thirst by drinking poison."


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