China’s drought: a taxi driver’s response

Radical solutions often come from unexpected places. Feng Yongfeng reports on the Beijing cabbie with an answer to the problems of China’s parched north, and a new strategy for conserving water.

Liu Zhenxiang, aged 48, is a typical Beijing taxi driver. But most of his worries are not about fuel prices, traffic or fares – they are about north China’s crippling drought.

Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau held a meeting on May 28 at which a number of local people were invited to put forward their ideas on improving the capital’s environment. When bureau deputy director Du Shaozhong saw Liu, he joked: “Mr Liu, you had better keep your speech short and to the point; if you read out the whole of that 28,000 character essay you sent in, noone else will have time to speak!” Liu replied in the affirmative: “The essay might be long, but it all comes down to one point,” he said. “How do we store more water in north China?”

The bureau had begun a campaign on March 26 encouraging the public to: “Put forward suggestions for conservation in the capital and prepare for the green Olympics.” A month later, Liu stopped off at the bureau and handed in his essay, “Drought in northern China: its causes and solutions”. The essay was later identified as one of the best proposals the bureau had received.

Liu believes that the direct cause of the drought is north China’s ever-decreasing rainfall. He looked at rainfall data and found 700-800 millimetres fell every year in some parts of the north China plain. But between 1997 and 2005, the average annual rainfall in Beijing was only 466 millimetres. He wanted to know why it was so much lower.

He first worked it out one day in 2003. Says Liu: “There is no groundwater because it does not rain, and it does not rain because there is no groundwater. Not enough water is evaporating, over too small an area. Just like the old saying: you can only reap what you sow. The terrain in west China is higher than in the east, and the water from the plateaus flows downwards and eastwards. The water is not collected and stored on the ground, so of course there is little rain.”

With this in mind, Liu looked at the effects of reservoirs, both large and small. He found that reservoirs lock in water and reduce the flow downstream. This reduces the volume and surface area of water in rivers, leading to insufficient evaporation, which affects regional climates and leads to a lack of rain – exacerbating the drought. In his essay, Liu sets out a three-pronged solution to the problem of drought. The first part is reforestation, which could enable more water to be trapped. The second is to allow greater amounts of water to flow out of reservoirs and boost the volume of groundwater. The third is to store water by creating wetlands, marshes and pools on farmland, taking local conditions into account. This would increase the surface area of water in the region. In times of drought, the water could be used for irrigation, while under normal conditions the wetlands would increase evaporation and create more rain, also increasing groundwater levels.

It all boils down to a simple maxim: we should do everything in our power to increase the amount of surface water.

Liu says that rainfall and surface water in Beijing are directly related. “A few decades ago, lots of areas surrounding the city centre, like Anzhen Bridge or east of Sanlitun, were covered with ponds and reed marshes. Back then, the weather was not so dry. Now, wetlands on the north China plain are decreasing, and so is rainfall.”

Water storage is the most important part of Liu’s plan. He told me about his aspirations. “Water storage means creating thousands of ponds, marshes and wetlands spread out across the land. If we see the land as a person, then the rivers are blood vessels, and pools are what keep the blood circulating. Beijing is massively over-exploiting its groundwater. In the suburb of Shunyi, they have had to dig wells down to 70 metres before they see any water. If my water storage plan were put into action, we could stop these plummeting groundwater levels.”

Draining away

At the end of June, I joined the China Environmental Protection Century Tour on a trip to Xuchang, in central China’s Henan province, and found people were already putting surprisingly similar plans into action in order to store valuable rainwater in the cities and across the vast central China plain.

Xuchang does not suffer from a lack of rain; annual rainfall normally stands at about 700 millimetres, and can sometimes be as much as 1,000 millimetres. Wang Jinhuai, director of the Xuchang Municipal People’s Congress, says: “A few years ago, when I was deputy mayor, I asked the Water Conservation Department to find out why the ground in Xuchang was getting so much drier every year. They found the main reason was not industry and agriculture’s increasing burden on water resources, although these did have some effect. The main cause was that we were too concerned with flood prevention, instead of water retention. All the river channels had been straightened out, and the natural ponds that used to cover the countryside had either been drained or filled in. Any rain that fell, even light rain, immediately drained away to the sea before it had even wet the soil.”

There is a small ornamental lake in the entrance hall of the Xuchang Municipal Party Committee. The water for the lake is currently extracted from groundwater resources, but soon a system of pipes will be installed to channel rainwater into the lake. A few years ago, Xuchang built a system to control the Xueyuan River, which flows around the city. A number of small dams were built across the river. When there is little rain, water is retained behind the dams, and when there are heavy downpours, the water overflows into the next small “lake”. The banks of the river have become a popular place for the people of Xuchang to spend their leisure time in pleasant surroundings.

Wang believes that the countryside has the greatest potential for water-saving projects. Rural areas tend to have more natural depressions and holes left behind by earth extraction, as well as relatively unaltered rivers. The village of Nanwu, near Xuchang, is low-lying and often at risk of flooding. But a few years ago, the local authorities had the idea to turning this hazard into an advantage. They created a huge lake, and started to link up many of the area’s natural ponds. They turned straight water channels into winding streams and created a linked water system that would absorb the water that falls from the heavens. Nanwu is now a well-known wetland area that is home to fishing, fruit-picking and eco-tourism industries. Economic development and environmental protection have both been advanced. Wang Guosheng, a local party secretary, says: “The ponds and streams may be small, but they have solved a big problem for us. During heavy rains, water is retained and distributed. In times of drought, we can use the water for irrigation. There is more moisture in the air on a day-to-day basis, and our groundwater supplies are being boosted over the long term. The project did not require a lot of investment, and was quite simple to implement.”

He continues: “The key is to be open-minded and think in new ways. Once the ground here became wetter, reeds and other plants started to grow and we started to raise crabs, which attract large numbers of tourists every autumn. Our integrated plans: to promote ponds and rivers, raise fish, fruit and vegetables and then encourage tourism based on fishing and fruit-picking, have turned us into a top local attraction. This sort of project would definitely be worth extending to north China – as a way to solve their drought.”

Feng Yongfeng, chinadialogue Beijing correspondent

Homepage photo by JF en Chine