Saving Beijing’s reservoirs

As the Olympics approaches, the Chinese capital's fragile water supply is in the spotlight. Jiang Gaoming explains how to prevent contamination risks in Beijing’s water – and ensure an adequate supply.

An environmental volunteer I know in the town of Chicheng, Hebei province, recently emailed me to say that an elementary school was dumping excrement directly into a local river. The school paid about 1,000 yuan (US$143) to have the waste from its toilets taken away and dumped into the Hei River, which feeds into the Miyun Reservoir, from which Beijing draws much of its water. My friend, outraged, made a video of the process to show as evidence of the pollution entering Beijing’s drinking water. 

Beijing suffers from a severe lack of water: the quantity of water available per head is only one-thirtieth of the global average. Guanting Reservoir, the first major reservoir to be built after 1949, drew water from a 43,000-square-kilometre basin. Once completed, it provided a total of 39.6 billion cubic metres of water and irrigated 1.1 million mu (734 square kilometres) of land. However, upstream industrial and economic activity reduced the flow and polluted the water. The quality of the water fell to class five or worse, which forced Beijing to stop drawing water from Guanting in 1985. The city now takes its water from the Miyun and Huairou reservoirs. But the outlook for the Miyun Reservoir is not good: the amount of water it can supply is plummeting, and it suffers from an excess of nutrients. As well as the dumping of excrement, this is also caused by the surface run-off from fertilisers and pesticides.

Although Beijing is improving its protection of water sources and has had some successes, there are still major problems, particularly when it comes the city’s poor use of funds. Liu Baoshan, chair of the city’s rural affairs committee, says that of the 150 million yuan (US$21.5 million) fund to protect water sources, only 80 million yuan (US$11.5 million) was actually used for this purpose. Of Beijing’s 547 minor river basins, 266 remain untreated. At the current rate of progress – treating 20 rivers a year – it will take 13 years to even complete even the first stage of the process. This will not quickly improve Beijing’s water sources – as is needed – particularly when, in some cases, “treatment” actually makes the problem worse. The project will also fail to deal with problems further upstream and out of reach of the Beijing government.

The protection of upstream water sources in China tends to mean the creation of forests; little attention is paid to pollution from agriculture or animal and human excrement. Beijing plans to spend 100 million yuan (US$14.3 million) between 2007 and 2011 assisting Zhangjiakou and Chengde, in Hebei province, to complete a 200,000-mu (134 square kilometres) project to protect water sources. Other measures include extending a project designed to protect Beijing and Tianjin from sandstorms to cover restoration of vegetation and the protection of water sources. But there are no projects aimed at reducing pollution from manufacturing, agriculture and the general population – including the question of excrement.

In fact, excrement is a useful agricultural resource; currently, it is even a scarce one. Modern agriculture has replaced organic fertilisers with chemical alternatives and pesticides. This presents a major challenge to the protection of water sources. Policies must also account for the interests of local people in poor areas. Beijing could, at no great cost, change the way upstream agriculture operates and encourage the use of organic fertilisers instead of chemicals; the use of straw to feed livestock; dung to fuel methane power generation; and the by-products used as fertiliser – rather than being dumped into rivers. Beijing’s consumers could enjoy organic products produced upstream, the farmers could have a secure income and the rivers would be cleaner.

Based on studies and discussions with experts, I recommend that Beijing focuses its efforts in the following way:


First, establish an Environmental Security Reserve for Beijing water sources that includes the Miyun, Guanting and Huairou reservoirs, which can ensure water quality and adequate water supplies in accordance with the State Council’s guidelines on environmental protection. Under the leadership of the Ministry of Water Resources, and with close cooperation between the city of Beijing and the provinces of Hebei and Shanxi, a unified mechanism should be established to solve the current problems of decentralised management. Once this is established, land use can be adjusted and planned scientifically.


Second, use market mechanisms to link water consumption downstream with water protection upstream, forming a positive feedback mechanism. Upstream areas should change traditional land use patterns, reduce population and livestock pressures and free up large areas of land for forests and grasslands – areas that currently produce agricultural products instead of water. Compensation for this will be provided from Beijing’s water bills. Any remaining agriculture should be organic, using human and animal excrement as fertiliser, which will increase income from the land while reducing and ultimately abandoning the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.


Third, ecological management must be linked to poverty alleviation and wealth creation. The challenges faced in protecting water sources are manmade problems. We should take the initiative by helping these areas solve energy problems with methane production technology and a more distributed infrastructure. We must also help with hygiene by building waste and water treatment plants. This will ensure the areas have adequate vegetation coverage, produce enough water, and it will guarantee that the water flowing into reservoirs is clean.


There is no time to waste in protecting Beijing’s water sources: it is an issue that impacts on the safety of Beijing’s residents, our national image and the success of the Olympics. We must act soon. Everyone involved should work closely together to create a program for sustainable water use, solve these problems and improve the environmental quality of the areas providing the capital’s water.

Jiang Gaoming is a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany. He is also vice secretary-general of the UNESCO China-MAB (Man and the Biosphere) Committee and a member of the UNESCO MAB Urban Group.

Homepage photo by pretty.face