The words “impending water shortage,” bring to mind arid places in the Middle East or Las Vegas. But in Beijing, the per capita annual water availability is well below the United Nations’ absolute water scarcity threshold, at just a tenth of the world average. China’s capital city has outgrown its water supply.
According to statistics released by the Beijing Water Authority, Beijing's annual water consumption has reached 3.6 billion cubic meters (950 billion gallons), far more than the 2.1 billion cubic meters (554 billion gallons) locally available.
A 13-year drought made the water crisis a visible concern. In 2002, the lake at Beijing’s Old Summer Palace dried up for seven months. In 2007 Kunming Lake, in the Summer Palace, dried up during the winter and spring.
Xu Xinyi, director of the Beijing Normal University’s College of Water Sciences, blames the city’s rising population. “We projected that Beijing’s water capacity could support 12 million people, but Beijing’s population has now reached 20 million people,” Xu told China Dialogue.
Even though the plain where Beijing sits was once covered in rivers, the capital has long relied on its groundwater supply for water and city officials have already begun taking steps to end overextraction. During 1980s the groundwater was being contaminated with arsenic and lead from industry, which is being moved elsewhere. Municipal officials are also phasing out private wells that draw from the groundwater, and conservation efforts have actually lowered Beijing's annual water usage from its peak in 1980, even in the midst of a population boom.
To get more water to the capital, officials have a two-pronged approach: bring in water from elsewhere, and desalinate seawater.
The Chinese government hopes to complete the $62 billion South-North Water Transfer Project in 2014. The project would divert 44.8 billion cubic meters (11.6 trillion gallons) of water per year from the Yangtze River in southern China to the Yellow River Basin in northern China, bringing at least another billion cubic meters (264 billion gallons) of water into Beijing when it is ready.
China’s central government is also banking on turning abundant seawater into drinking water. They’re investing $3.3 billion in desalination, according to the BBC, in order to triple the amount of seawater available for human use by 2015.
Although, given Beijing’s other big crisis—its poor air quality—desalination plants aren’t a perfect solution. "Desalination uses lots of energy to produce filters, and then to process and transport the clean water," said Zhang Junfeng, a Beijing environmental activist. Coal-dependent desalination plants would contribute to water, a scarce resource, but also smog, which is never in short supply.
China’s water problems are a glimpse head to a coming world water crisis. The UN projects that by 2025, two-thirds of the world is projected to live in countries where there isn’t enough water or it has been compromised. As China works for solutions to a water shortage, the rest of the world has a more than vested interest in hoping it succeeds.