How crucial is water as a natural resource in China? Top Party and state leaders include it in their speeches on the nation's development strategy while slogans advocating water saving seem to have become an indispensable attachment to taps in public places.
Shifting to a scientific concept of development, which focuses on human value and sustainable development, the Chinese government made "harmony between water resources and humans" a keynote of the 12th World Water Day on Monday and the 17th China Water Week.
Water shortage and pollution has become a bottleneck impairing China's sustainable development, Wang Shucheng, minister of water resources, said on Monday.
The minister described the problem as one of the tough challenges China has to deal with in the next two decades, a pivotal period for the country's further construction of a well-off society.
With a population of approximately 1.3 billion, China, though ranked only after Brazil, Russia and Canada in fresh water resources, has become one of the 13 countries with the most serious water shortage problem in terms of per capita water resource possession.
Currently, over 400 out of 600-odd Chinese cities are short of water, with Beijing and Tianjin, the national capital and a major port city in the north, at a critical moment of water shortage.
Meanwhile, rural people in some arid areas also have to endure acute water shortage, either for farming or drinking.
While managing to ease the thirst of some of its cities by diverting water to its arid areas, the central government is making equal efforts to raise its people's awareness of the water crisis they are confronting and their consciousness of water saving.
Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao both recently underscored the importance of fostering a water-saving society.
Guo Yingchun, a prestigious meteorologist in Hebei, a neighboring province of Beijing and Tianjin, said that humans' irrational exploitation of natural resources, which leads to ecological degradation and deterioration, should be blamed for water shortage.
Until the 1950s, Hebei Province served as a genuine "water bank" to Beijing and Tianjin, recalled Wei Zhimin, 70, a noted water conservancy expert of the province.
"But the province became thirsty itself after half a century as a result of a steady rise of air temperature and drop of rainfall," Wei said.
While rivers and lakes in north China are becoming shallow or dry, groundwater becomes an alternative for human exploitation. As a result of groundwater pumping, the region now witnesses the country's largest area of ground subsidence, which sprawls some 40,000 square kilometers.
In an effort to ease the water shortage in its north, China last year launched a gigantic water diversion project to channel water from the country's water-rich south to the dry northern part.
Though quite a very significant measure, however, observed Wei, the project cannot resolve the root problem of water shortage in the whole country.
"The crux of matter rests with the formation of a water-saving society and the ecological recovery," Wei said.
Keenly aware of the crisis of water shortage, the capital of Beijing is working out the most rigid water resource management rules to guarantee water supply.
Bi Xiaogang, deputy director of the Beijing municipal bureau of water conservancy, said Beijing is carrying out a quota program of industry water use to encourage water saving among enterprises.
While technological renovation aimed to facilitate water saving is introduced among the national capital's enterprises, farmers are also encouraged to turn to water-saving crops and irrigation methods.
The municipality also turned over 1,700 hectares of farmland near the Miyun Reservoir, its major water supplier, into pastures and forests.
In Yinchuan, capital city of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in northwest China, a progressive charging system on water consumption has been introduced to prompt local residents to save water. Beijing municipality, and Hebei Province, and southwestern Sichuan and Guizhou provinces will reportedly follow the example of Yinchuan.
Some experts warned that by 2030, China will possibly suffer a more grave water shortage if no prompt, effective and substantial measures are taken.
However, Water Resource Minister Wang Shucheng noted that the country still has a great potential of water saving, as most consumers, both enterprises and individuals, are not yet cost-effective-conscious in water consumption and there is still enormous room to tap more water through saving methods.
The charging reform on water consumption is only one of the essential measures to encourage water saving, Wang said.
The balance between water resources and human demand, acknowledged the minister, finally hinges on the people's consciousness of water saving both in daily life and production.
(Xinhua News Agency March 22, 2004)