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Cloud Seeding Fails to Ease Drought

Instead of flushing liters of fresh water down the toilet, 26-year-old Beijing resident Tie Yingbin now saves used water from her kitchen and uses it in the toilet.

Meanwhile, local meteorologists watch each passing cloud with hope as experts contemplate new methods of artificially creating rain.

Beijing residents have already witnessed more artificial rainfalls than ever before.

From July through September last year, two airplanes, 21 rocket launchers and 30 pieces of anti-aircraft artillery were deployed to seed clouds with dry ice. The effort dumped 23.8 million cubic meters of water into the Miyun Reservoir at a cost of 0.15 yuan (2 US cents) per cubic meter.

To further quench Beijing's thirst, the city has just finished three major groundwater projects in Huairou and Fangshan districts and Pinggu County at a cost of 1.1 billion yuan (US$138 million). Water pumped from these sources is expected to add as much as 330 million cubic meters to the annual water supply.

Although capital city authorities have racked their brains to come up with new water resources, experts say conservation is a more effective solution to the crisis in the long run.

To encourage conservation, water prices will be hiked next month.

When that happens, people like Tie will save not only water, but also money.

A public hearing was held on June 3 to solicit opinions on proposals that the price of water be raised by an average of 30 percent.

The majority of the 30 public delegates attending the hearing agreed to the hike, but urged authorities to give special consideration to low-income groups and provide them with special subsidies.

The price revision will operate on a sliding scale, with the average price for residential use rising from the current 2.9 yuan (35 US cents) per ton to 3.7 yuan (45 US cents).

The thirsty capital city has already raised water use fees eight times since 1991, when the price per ton was as low as 0.12 yuan (less than 2 US cents).

Sources with the newly established Beijing Water Bureau said that the price is likely to continue climbing to 6 yuan (73 US cents) per ton in a couple of years.

The repeated price increases are made in response to what is now six consecutive years of drought.

The lack of rain has brought the water level of many rivers and lakes down to their lowest points in history.

Liu Zhiqi, secretary-general of the Beijing Water Association, said the water level at Miyun Reservoir--Beijing's lifeline--is dangerously low.

"This year the two rivers entering the reservoir have only injected 18 percent of the water they did in years of abundance, and the water level of the reservoir is 20 meters lower because of successive years of drought," said Liu.

Use of ground water has led to an annual decline of 1.3 meters in the city's groundwater levels. Over a period of years, this excessive drain by both industry and agriculture has left the groundwater level dangerously low, posing threats to public safety.

The city's annual water availability for each person is less than 300 cubic meters on average. That figure is one-eighth of the national level and just one-thirty-second of the international level.

Experts warn that the capital city's worsening thirst will not be quenched until 2010, when the massive South-North Water Diversion Project is completed and brings water from the Yangtze River, more than 1,200 kilometers away.

"However, the Beijing Olympics are approaching in 2008 and water consumption rises each year amid rapid economic and demographic expansion of the city. Something must be done today," said Bi Xiaogang, deputy director of the municipal water bureau, at the public hearing on the price hike proposal.

The conversion to a sliding scale pricing system with the upcoming increase is a first for the capital city. Under the new system, households that use water within a certain quota pay the basic price. Those who consume more water than average will pay more--probably up to five times more for "luxury" use.

To cope with the escalating cost, more and more Beijing residents, like Tie, have started to pay attention to water conservation.

Experts point out that leakage alone accounts for an annual loss of 100 million cubic meters from Beijing's water supply.

The leakage rate is 17 percent in Beijing, but it is only 8 to 10 percent in many US and Japanese cities, said Qu Geping, president of the China Environmental Protection Fund.

"A drop saved is a drop earned. We should treat the fight against water leakage as urgently as fire fighting, because water is the source of life," said Liu Shuyun, a resident in Beijing who participated in the public hearing on the price hike.

The city's Water Conservation Office will ensure facilities with water-saving functions are used in public places. Enterprises are urged to replace facilities that fail to comply with the office's water conservation requirements. At the same time, residents are encouraged to buy faucets, showerheads and toilets with water-saving functions, said the office's Vice Director Chen Lintao.

The water crisis is changing the way people live, and the city's economic structure as well.

Approvals of new water guzzling businesses, such as textile and papermaking firms, have skidded to a halt.

Moreover, commercial operations like spas, saunas and massage centers can expect to pay as much as 100 yuan (US$12) per ton instead of the current 10 yuan (US$1.20) per ton.

Beijing Development and Reform Bureau Deputy Director Chai Xiaozhong claimed the move is aimed at curbing development of luxurious bathing industries.

According to environmentalist Zhang Shouquan, "A city should plan its development based on its natural resources. Given the grave water shortage, Beijing is restructuring its industry."

China's per capita of fresh water resources stand at a mere 2,200 cubic meters, about one-quarter of the world average. However, in 2002 water consumption for every 10,000 yuan (US$1,200) of gross domestic product reached 540 cubic meters, four times the international average.

(China Daily June 18, 2004)


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