What happens after the Olympics?

The environment has been a serious worry for the organisers of Beijing’s 2008 Olympics. China’s government may have this under control, writes Li Taige, but what about when the visitors leave?

With the 2008 Olympics less than a year away, Beijing’s environment has become the organisers’ biggest worry. Speaking to CNN, Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, said that poor air quality in the capital could mean endurance events like long-distance cycle races would have to be postponed. Guangzhou newspaper the Southern Daily went as far as to say that if improvements are not made, the Beijing Olympics may be the most polluted ever.

However, the Chinese government is now doing everything within its power to ensure environmental quality for the Games, and the worries may be unnecessary. Starting on August 17, Beijing implemented a four-day restriction on car use. Vehicles with a license plate ending in either an odd or even number were forbidden to enter the city on any one day; the measure was estimated to have kept 1.3 million cars off the road each day. Beijing’s Environmental Protection Monitoring Centre tested the air to see what effect the changes had, and the lessons from this experiment will be applied during the Olympics. Measures on this scale are rare and demonstrate the determination and power of the government.

Moreover, this is only one of the temporary measures planned for the Olympics. Beijing’s Legal Daily reported that in the two months before the Games some factories will be forced to stop production, building sites will cease work and even Beijing’s surrounding provinces of Shanxi, Tianjin, Hebei and Inner Mongolia will have to bring air pollution under control.

After the Games

It seems Beijing is revising its plans for improving air quality during the Games. Du Shaozhong, deputy director of Beijing’s Environmental Protection Agency, did not reveal specific details when he was interviewed on August 13, but he did say that during the Olympics, “strict measures will be implemented to reduce vehicle emissions, building site dust and other sources of air pollution.”

However, while it is quite plausible that these temporary measures will ensure good air quality for the 2008 Olympics, what about when the Games finish?

Beijing Shougang – the steel company that was at one time the city’s major polluter – has moved out of the capital, and now vehicle emissions are the main source of air pollution. But the government has encouraged the car industry and the public’s desire to own a car. The number of private vehicles is expanding at an astonishing pace, as it is in every Chinese city. In May this year there were 3 million vehicles in the capital, the majority of them privately owned.

Water crisis

However, it is Beijing’s chronic water shortages that present the city with its greatest challenge. The capital has 300 cubic metres of water per head annually, far below 1,000 cubic metres – the internationally recognised standard for water scarcity. To ensure that the capital has enough to drink, provinces such as Shanxi and Hebei – which already face shortages – have been forced to pipe in their water. And water consumption and pollution will only increase with the construction of the Olympic venues, the Games themselves, the building of an accompanying infrastructure and the construction that arises from an expected increase in GDP.

The office responsible for the South-to-north Water Transfer has said the stretch from Shijiazhuang to Beijing will be ready in time for the Olympics, and that water will be moved from four reservoirs in Hebei province to Beijing in the case of emergency. The central section of the project starts in Mujiangkou Reservoir, in Hubei province, and ends in Beijing.

But even this is not enough to quench Beijing’s thirst. Shi Qianyi, professor at Tsinghua University and a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, wrote in China Environmental News in 2000 that this will only provide 1 billion cubic metres of water annually – and at a cost that consumers will find hard to accept. She warned: “if the problems of water scarcity and pollution are not solved, we may end up worrying about moving the capital.” Niu Youcheng, the capital’s deputy mayor, admitted in September last year that with the Beijing’s ever-growing population, water scarcity was the main factor limiting urban development.

Challenges for the capital

It is astounding that a city with such extreme water shortages is expanding at the speed it is; Beijing’s population stood at 15.81 million at the end of 2006. It also attracts a large number of migrant workers from around China, with the population increasing 430,000 between 2005 and 2006 – the equivalent of a medium-sized city every year. This worsens congestion and air pollution, as well as increasing the pressure on water resources. In this sense at least, Beijing is not developing in a sustainable manner.

And the Olympics have only added fuel to Beijing’s fire. Holding the Games in Beijing is a good thing for China – and for the entire world. But sometimes I wonder why Beijing bid for the games, rather than another city with a smaller population and greater water resources. The capital is confident it will ensure adequate water and air quality for the Olympics, but does it feel the same about dealing with the city’s environmental burdens when the spectators and athletes leave?

Du Shaozhong said that improving air quality is not only about the Olympics, but it should also benefit the city’s 15 million residents. However, maintaining air quality after the Olympics will be a Herculean task. Car owners can take the bus for a few days, but they will not leave their beloved vehicles at home forever. Temporary measures – such as taking over a million cars off the road, closing down factories and building sites – can hardly become permanent.

Whatever happens, policy-makers can draw on the Olympic experience. For instance, if taking cars off the road has a real impact on air quality and congestion, more parking places in city outskirts and increased parking costs in the centre will encourage drivers to use public transport to reach the city centre.

China could also consider decentralisation. This would see the government use administrative orders and market mechanisms to move organisations and companies out of Beijing to the city’s satellite towns like Tongzhou and Shunyi. Employees could afford to live locally and would not need to commute to central Beijing, reducing the pressure on the capital’s environment. Or they could be moved out of the city environs altogether. Beijing is not only the capital; it is a political, economic and cultural centre. However, it has failed to spur the economic and cultural development of its surrounding areas. And with the city suffering from water scarcity, why not encourage organisations and people to move elsewhere?

There are many other measures that could be taken. Nobody wants clear water and blue skies to be short-lived benefits of the Olympics. Perhaps our decision-makers need to start thinking now about how these improvements can be maintained.


Li Taige is a Beijing-based journalist. He obtained a masters degree in engineering from Sichuan University in 1997, and studied as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2003-2004.