Sharing water and cutting pollution

Instead of radiating benefits to surrounding areas, China’s big cities are absorbing their neighbours’ resources, and Beijing is the greediest of all for water. It’s time for a national policy on providing ecological compensation, writes Feng Yongfeng.

If the world were to become drier in the future, wars triggered by water disputes would not only break out in places where there were good-quality water resources. “First-class” water would no longer be the only resource for which people would compete. Dirty, smelly and poisonous water also would become a precious resource, to be attained through force and bribery. Someday when people are boasting to one another about how many dirty-water reserves they have, pollution control technology, water decontamination technology and sea-water conversion technology will be dramatically improved. Technology such as drip irrigation, which utilises every drop of water, will greatly increase the productive capacity of water resources.   

While some people wish that this day will come soon, some would rather that it never arrives.

Chinese people developed the bad habit of moving into big cities in ancient times. Metropolises such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are growing all the time. People who move to these big cities all hope that in the city they won’t have to worry about the water supply.

However, the water situation in the regions neighbouring big cities like Beijing is worrying. Take the Juma River in northeast China’s Hebei province, for instance. Less than one-tenth of its overall length goes through Beijing, but the river is reduced to a mere trickle by the time it runs out of the capital. The reason is quite simple: the water has been “confiscated” by Beijingers. In 2003, the people of Hebei became very upset over the situation and conflicts arose between them, but when these clashes did not resolve matters, they reported the case to the central government, demanding an explanation. In the end, the government said that “the amount of water that should be used is based on the scale of the drainage area”, a policy which did nothing to resolve the situation.  

The Yongding River is the most famous river in the history of Beijing. Thanks to the Yongding, Beijing was once considered “a metropolis with a river running through it”. But now surveys list only three capital cities in the world with no river flowing through them, and Beijing is one of them. This is because the water in the middle and lower reaches of Yongding has already dried up. There are plenty of water reserves in the upper reaches of the Yongding, but the river has been prevented from flowing downstream by numerous reservoirs at different levels. Although building reservoirs can help prevent floods during the flooding season, the truth is that Beijing thinks it can divert water from these reservoirs to quench its thirst if a sudden cut-off in water supply should occur.   

It has been some time since the start of the construction of the central route of China’s south-to-north water diversion project, which diverts water from provinces in central China all the way to Tuancheng Lake (next to Kunming Lake, on the grounds of Beijing’s Summer Palace). However, few people know what the real intention of this project is. In fact, the south-to-north water diversion project means diverting water from southern areas to Beijing. In case of a water emergency, reservoirs in Hebei province will have to ensure a sufficient water supply for Beijing, even if they run the risk of draining the water in the Baiyangdian basin (considered northern China’s “great funnel”).

If the water supply in Hebei is not enough, then they will draw water from Henan province, even pumping water from the dying Yellow River; if this is still not enough, water will be drawn from the Yangtze or the Han River in Hubei province. If the water supply from the central route of the south-to-north water diversion project is not enough to meet Beijing’s demands, then they will start using the eastern route and western route. If water from lakes and rivers are not sufficient, then they will pump water from the sea. (And if the sea’s water is still not enough, maybe we’d have to transfer water from Russia’s Lake Baikal, in Siberia, which contains about one third of the world’s fresh water.)

Recently, due to the global water crisis, Beijing’s “political priority in water use” – its special-needs status (as the country’s capital) over other regions — has encountered economic demands. During this year’s annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Xiao Yutian, a representative from Chengde city, in Hebei province, said:

“The fast development of Tianjin and Beijing, instead of radiating benefits to the surrounding areas, is actually absorbing their resources. For example, infrastructures, industrial projects and human resources have all flowed to these metropolises. In addition, in order to protect Beijing and Tianjin from sandstorms and desert winds, large amounts of farmland have been reforested in Zhangjiakou and Chengde districts, which has greatly hampered the development of their animal husbandry. In order to ensure the sufficiency and quality of the water supply for Beijing, Zhangjiakou and Chengde districts are striving to meet high standards in drinking-water protection. For example, on Chaobai River alone, over 800 industrial projects have been suspended from operation, which has resulted in huge tax losses. However, people in Zhangjiakou and Chengde districts never give up the responsibility for protecting the ecosystem in Beijing and Tianjin. There is a saying in Chengde: ‘Halt the sand and storms at the threshold of Chengde, send clean and clear water to Beijing and Tianjin.’Beijing and Tianjin should shoulder greater responsibility for the development of their neighbouring regions, and the government should take immediate action to put in place a compensation mechanism for Zhangjiakou and Chengde districts. Additionally, the central government should increase investment in the infrastructure construction in the underdeveloped regions around Beijing and Tianjin, and integrated measures should be taken to achieve a relationship in which the industrial boost in Beijing and Tianjin can exert positive influence on the surrounding underdeveloped areas.”

The call for an ecological compensation mechanism is particularly loud and clear in places such as water sources and regions located at the upper reaches of rivers. Zhangjiakou is the area providing the main water source for Beijing, and its five major reservoirs have been continuously transferring water to Guanting reservoir and Baihebao reservoir in Beijing since 2003. In the past three years, a total volume of 259.2 million cubic meters has been transferred into Beijing, a major part of which should have been used for irrigation by local farmers in Zhangjiakou.

Bai Junjie, a CPPCC member for Zhangjiakou, said: “If the water price is 0.15 yuan (US $0.018) per cubic meter — the lowest market price — the direct financial losses of these five major reservoirs (with over 300 employees in total) reached 7.5 million last year.” If they get compensation of about 0.1 yuan per cubic meter (US $0.0125) according to the current national water-compensation standard, it would still be very difficult for them to survive.

A lot of industrial projects in Zhangjiakou cannot be permitted because they are located at the upper reaches of the river, a situation which has greatly restricted the development of the local economy. But they have not got compensation of any kind from Beijing for many years. It was not until 1995 that Beijing started to allocate funds for water and forest preservation in Chengde and Zhangjiakou, two million yuan per year at the beginning, which later increased to eighteen million per year. The funding for soil preservation in Zhangjiakou has also increased to around eight million yuan per year.

The compensation mechanism proposed by Bai Junjie is to identify a place’s original water rights and to reach an agreement between the upper and lower reaches of the river on transferring these rights on a fee basis. In this way, if water used for irrigation in farming in the upper reaches should be transferred downstream for industrial purposes and household uses, the farmers could attain some financial compensation to help them build up industry in their area.

Zhangjiakou was the first city around Beijing to propose this mechanism, but in other parts of China, particularly places where the length of the river is confined to within one province, similar fee-based compensation mechanisms are quite popular.

For example, in order to ensure water safety, Guangdong province allocates 150 million yuan (US $18.8 million) every year to Xunwu county, Anyuan county and Dingnan county in Jiangxi province, located at the upper reaches of the Dong River (the eastern tributary of the Pearl River) for them to protect the ecosystem of the river’s source. A river called the Luoyang runs through Quanzhou city, in Fujian province. In order to maintain the quality of the water, the Quanzhou government set up the regulation stating that cities in the lower reaches which have benefited from the river should establish a special compensation fund to support the construction of environmental infrastructure in the areas on the upper reaches, and the funding should be shared among these cities according to the amount of water each of them has used.

Such a mechanism has also been put into action on the Jialing River, a branch of Yangtze, since last year, so that polluting factories in the upper reaches will have to provide financial compensation to the residents living downstream. Zhejiang province established a set of specific regulations on ecological compensation, and these regulations set clear rules regarding who is entitled to compensation and the methods of paying that compensation. Besides paying compensation through government funding, it can also be achieved through methods such as the trading of water rights or by increasing business investment in the markets of areas in the upper reaches.

“Compensation can be achieved by various ways,” said Ren Yong, the deputy director of the Policy Research Centre of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA). He said he particularly appreciates what has been achieved in Zhejiang province. He also noted: “There won’t be any significant breakthrough at local levels if the central government fails to lay down relevant legislation and policies. Particularly where border issues are involved. Without a policy platform, small rivers may not be a problem, but what about large rivers like the Yangtze and the Yellow River, which run through a number of provinces, and what about some big international rivers like the Lantsang River? You can imagine, if provinces like Yunnan, Sichuan, Tibet, Qinghai, Gansu and Xinjiang all start to demand compensation, then who will be paying the bills, in what way and to whom? All these are very complicated problems.”

There are two things that humans do every day: one is consume resources and the other is create pollution. Ecological compensation emphasises increasing the value of natural resources, but it doesn’t provide an effective way to solve the problem of pollution. Addressing pollution requires taxpayers to pay an “ecological tax” – also known as an environmental tax or green tax. It is inevitable that people will pollute the environment, but the issue is that we have to take the responsibility to dispose of the waste we produce, and every one of us should pay to reverse the pollution resulting from our consumption and minimize the damage caused by industrial activities as much as possible. Only then should you be able to keep on polluting, and other people can have a safeguard for this continuing pollution.  

The author: Yongfeng Feng is an award-winning journalist with the Guangming Daily.