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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 May 2006, 13:35 GMT 14:35 UK
Drought worsens China water woes
By Daniel Griffiths
BBC News, Beijing

Parts of China are suffering their worst drought in over 50 years. But in the cities, demand for water is increasing as China's economic boom continues.

Environmentalists warn current levels of water consumption may not be sustainable.

It is not far from Beijing into the countryside, but it feels like a journey to a different world.

Farmer Chen
Fields in the village of Happy Valley have completely dried up

I found myself driving along dirt tracks through poor villages that had not changed much for centuries - ramshackle little houses, farmers herding their goats over ground that was hard and dry.

These little settlements might have television and electricity, but many still do not have telephones - a sign that China's economic miracle has yet to reach some of the country's rural areas.

In this arid, dusty northern region drought is part of life, but this year has been the worst in decades.

That was clear when I arrived at the village of Happy Valley, hidden away in the hills near the Great Wall.

Dirt and rocks

The slopes were brown and bare with just a few bursts of bright pink blossom and the locals were anything but happy. There has not been rain there for more than six months.

In the parks of downtown Beijing the sprinklers are all on and the gardeners are watering their plants

One of the farmers, Mr Song, showed me his field. It was just a collection of dirt and rocks. It is a sign of how bad things are that he called this good earth.

Normally there should be crops poking through the soil. This year there was nothing.

What little water the village has comes from old wells but the residents are having to drill deeper all the time and the quality is poor.

As I walked through the village I noticed that many of the houses were boarded up. Those who can are packing up and moving to the cities in search of a better life.

But not everyone is that lucky. "Where could I move to?" said Mr Song when I asked him about leaving. "I've lived here for more than 20 years."

Local government officials have come to Happy Valley, but say they have no money to help. Mr Song and his fellow villagers are on their own.

Priority for cities

There are more than 300 million people in China like Mr Song who live in rural areas short of clean drinking water. Pollution is so severe the government estimates 40% of water in the country's major rivers is fit only for industrial or agricultural use.

More than a decade of near double-digit economic growth has put serious strain on water demand in China, which has only 7% of the world's total water resources, compared with more than 20% of the global population.

In the area where Beijing and Tianjin are located there are some cities which in five to seven years will run out of water
Environmentalist Ma Jun

But get back to the capital and you would never know there was a crisis. In the parks of downtown Beijing the sprinklers are all on and the gardeners are watering their plants. The government gives big cities top priority for water. The countryside and smaller towns are the losers.

The economic boom is making matters worse. Go to any shopping centre and you can see the country's new middle classes snapping up washing machines, dishwashers, showers and baths. The price they pay for the water they use is tiny compared with many other countries.

'Unsustainable'

But some here are worried about the future and Cui Hong is one of them. In her flat in the west of the capital she shows me how she recycles water from her washing machine to use for cleaning the floor or flushing the toilet.

"I have seen programmes on TV where people didn't have enough water to drink," she says. "I think I can do a little and regardless of whether it will help or not, I think I should do it."

Cui Hong
Cui Hong takes care to reuse her water

But nature is against Cui Hong. China has only a fraction of the water it needs and a third of the country is already desert. The authorities are worried about unrest if they raise prices to reduce usage.

Beijing believes that the answer to the problem lies in the wetter south of the country. The annual rainy season there leads to massive flooding and loss of life.

Work has begun on an ambitious construction project to transfer water from the south to the north.

But many say it is too late. Ma Jun is an environmentalist and the author of the influential book "China's Water Crisis". He warns that the current levels of water consumption are unsustainable.

"The North to South Water Diversion Project is not enough. We says it's like a cup of water to put out a bonfire - it's not enough to quench the thirst," he says.

"In the area where Beijing and Tianjin are located there are some cities which in five to seven years will run out of water. We're talking about a time bomb and one day it will be too late to go back."


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