To people in the landlocked province of Gansu in northwest China, water is so precious that they cannot afford wasting a tiny drop. Villagers in Dingxi County of arid Gansu would offer a small cup of water as a luxury treat to distinguished guests.
This is the true picture depicted by Gansu deputies present at the two-week session of the legislative National People's Congress (NPC) which opened on Monday.
In China, water is short not only in landlocked areas, but also in some coastal regions. A recent survey shows that 400 out of 600 major Chinese cities are suffering from acute water shortages, which cause economic losses amounting to more than 120 billion yuan annually. In Tianjin, the largest port city in north China, the tap water rate has soared 250 times in 20 years to around two yuan per ton at present from some 0.08 yuan in the 1980s.
In the government work report delivered to the annual NPC session on Monday, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji said that "water shortage is a factor that has seriously held back our economic and social development."
To quench the thirst of north China, China vows to launch a multi-billion-dollar project to divert water from southern China during the Tenth Five-Year Plan Period (2001-2005), a project the late Chairman Mao Zedong envisioned half a century ago.
Water resources are quite unevenly distributed in China, with about 81 percent concentrated on southern China and 19 percent available in northern China.
Often, the people were watching helplessly the Yellow River in north China running dry and their crops withering while their countrymen along the Yangtze River were fighting to save their homes and crops from sweeping floods, said Zhu Zuoyan, vice- chairman of the China National Natural Foundation and a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Water is of vital importance, he said. It has a direct bearing on the very survival and development of the Chinese nation. Although China ranks 6th in water supply in the world, it has become meager when coming to the per capita basis.
Although people in southern China suffer less from water shortages, they are plagued by water pollution just the same as their countrymen in the north. In Chongqing, an industrial metropolis in southwest China, a foam belt as long as 30 kilometers was formed on the surface of the Yangtze river in 1993 due to pollutants discharged by paper mills. Fortunately, the water was saved as most of the paper mills have been ordered to shut down or move to other locations.
Rampant felling of trees, overpopulation and headlong race for industrial development have not only drained wells and springs, but also victimized the majority of lakes and rivers.
Pollution is now spreading from cities to the countryside and from coastal areas to landlocked regions. In many places, even groundwater is not spared.
Wang Jirong, deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Administration, warned that water in the south should first be well treated before being diverted to the north.
Families in the dry Gansu have are building facilities to collect rain water. A 40-cubic-meter pool needs an investment of only 2,000 yuan (US$250), said Feng Guangzhi, an official with the Ministry of Water Resources.
The ministry plans to help build 17 million such pools in west China in the coming ten years, which will benefit 20 million people, Feng said.
Several other provinces in west China have sent experts to Israel to learn water conservation techniques in agricultural development.
While geological teams are searching groundwater in deserts, Gobis and semi-arid land in Xinjiang, Ningxia and Inner Mongolia, Zhang Rongmin, Vice-Chairman of the Central Committee of the China Democratic National Construction Association, is brooding over an artificial rain program, which, he said, may bring about an additional 60 billion tons of water supply to China annually.
But economics gurus are scheming to use water rates to regulate supply and arouse the people to awareness of water economy.
Not all citizens have developed the habit of economizing the use of water. A man in the port city of Qingdao in east China's Shandong Province said he was surprised to see how lavish people in the provincial capital of Jinan are with the use of water. "The water they used to wash an apple is enough for washing a whole basket of apples in my case."
Many cities have been forced to raise water rates. In Beijing, an enterprise is liable to heavy fines if it uses water beyond its allocated quota as the recent regulations stipulated.
The government has raised the slogan of building a "water-efficient society."
Liu Zhiqi, secretary-general of the China Association for Water Supplies to Cities and Towns, has called for making more laws concerning water supply, water pollution, and water conservation.