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Monday, 4 September, 2000, 20:15 GMT 21:15 UK
China's capital runs dry
The Imperial City
Beijing's Imperial City is being supplied with foul, stinking water
By BBC Monitoring's Charis Dunn-Chan

Imagine a black liquid with white foam on top - Guinness beer you might think.

Think again.

This is a description of the water in a feed stream of one of Beijing's two reservoirs.


The city was drab, dusty and smog-wrapped.

The water running into the Chinese capital's Guanting Reservoir had become so polluted that the reservoir was closed down in 1997.

Beijing now functions with a single reservoir and that one is drying out.

The Chinese government admits that the whole of north China is in the grip of a drought.

It's a drought that the government describes as historically rare.

It has lasted all through this year, causing water rationing in major northern cities, and threatening the livelihood and health of millions.

Stinking water

On an annual holiday to Beijing this summer I was struck by the anomalies of a city energetically pitching for the 2008 Olympics with promises of green spaces, clean air and clean water.

Winter swimming in a Beijing park
Swimming in Beijing's parks is not recommended

The city was drab, dusty and smog-wrapped.

In the city's top hotel, The Palace, a shining waterfall cascaded down through the centre of a three-floor atrium.

Yet in the real palace of the emperors, the Forbidden City, rubbish-strewn, stinking water festered in the surrounding moat and the famous Golden Stream.

This is because the moat and all the lakes of the emperor's palace and summer parks are being supplied by water from the reservoir closed by pollution.

'Earthly wonder'

The greatest irony of this is that Beijing is the capital founded by Kublai Khan of the Mongol dynasty because he was impressed by the sweet, fresh water rising in the surrounding hills.


This drought is a man-made calamity rather than a natural disaster

Zhang Jiacheng

Marco Polo described the Khan's city of lakes and palaces as an earthly wonder.

The inspiration for literature's Xanadu is now a planner's nightmare.

Walking round even the best parts of the city, there is a pervasive reek of sewage.

Ordinary local people have to struggle with the chore of washing themselves and their clothes.

Although other Chinese cities such as Tianjin and Jinan have water rationing for residents, Beijing has so far only enforced rationing on businesses.

Unsafe water

Yet running water in the city is not safe to drink and can give off an unpleasant smell.

Back out exploring the city, it was clear to see that China has a big task ahead if it is to clean up its air and water.

The smog was so bad that the glittering yellow roofs of the Imperial Palace were dulled by a grey haze.

The bright blue sky vaulting the blue roof of the Temple of Heaven was nowhere to be seen for days on end.

To make Beijing's skies blue, the government has in the past shut down factories and banned the use of coal stoves when an international Olympics delegation was due in town.

Man-made crisis

The government talks up the drought by blaming lack of rainfall.

Yet some academics think this water crisis is man-made.

Zhang Jiacheng of China's Meteorological Science Research Institute said in a newspaper interview that "the main factor of the drought in China is not what the propaganda says about the water shortage in the north".

In a Chinese newspaper published in Guangdong, Zhang put the blame squarely on poor water resources management and said the amount of water wasted in irrigation was "astonishing".

Zhang believes that this drought is a "man-made calamity rather than a natural disaster".

He concluded that "what China lacks is science".

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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See also:

29 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
Beijing battles for 2008 Olympics
28 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
China allocates drought funds
21 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
$12bn pipeline could ease China drought
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