Written by Charlie Campbell and Joseph Chang.

Beijing is one of the most water-scarce cities in the world and water management will play a crucial role in defining its future as a global city. Decreasing water supply and ever increasing demands from urban growth are causing irreversible environmental degradation. This will require the full attention of the Chinese government as it may become a threat to the survival of the Communist Party (CCP) and China.

At the current time, the government is working diligently to broaden water resources while curbing the insatiable demand by its citizens and industry. However, like many environmental problems, there is no silver bullet to this issue and will require a concerted effort to include policy changes from many different stakeholders to achieve meaningful impact.

Water Supply

Beijing uses roughly 3.6 billion cubic meters of water each year and far exceeds renewable fresh water resources, which has led to the over-exploitation of its fresh water sources. The majority of Beijing’s public water data dates back to 2008 and there been no accurate, large scale data published since.

Beijing’s water comes from two major sources:

  • Groundwater (shallow/deep aquifers) has an estimated 2.14 billion cubic meters
  • Surface water (rivers and reservoirs) has an estimated 27 billion cubic meters

Geographically, Beijing is located in one of the driest regions of the country, which receives almost no rain from September to April while 85 percent of the annual precipitation falls between July and September. Droughts in 2017 were the worst on record.  Less rainfall means less runoff for sustainable refilling of surface and ground water sources.

Water Demand

Beijing, home to a currently estimated 22 million Chinese residents, is implementing measures to enforce a population cap of 23 million by 2020. In 2012, the mega-city’s water use exceeded 3.6 billion cubic meters, an amount far greater than the 2.1 billion cubic meters that is readily available in the vicinity of Beijing.

The current usage breaks down into residential use (39 percent), agricultural use (38 percent), industrial use (20 percent), with the remaining three percent being used for the urban environment.  Beijing has made progress decreasing water usage by industry and agriculture, but residential water usage has continued to increase as the population continues to grow. This has been exacerbated by the higher standard of living resulting from the continual rise in Chinese GDP.


The central government established the Beijing’s Water Authority (BWA) in 2004 to manage water resources, water supply, and water pollution management within the entire Beijing municipality from the district to local township level.

(1) Surveying and Water Census

In order to properly diagnose and address the existing water crisis in Beijing, the BWA must make significant investments into developing a comprehensive water surveying system and database that is nested within a national Chinese water database. This could be styled along the lines of U.S. federal agencies such as the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), which developed the Corps Water Management System (CWMS). This system and national database, fed by a network of water surveying equipment remotely located throughout the United States, asserts itself as a “public accessible map-based repository of water resources data that includes elevation, precipitation, storage, and flow status of USACE reservoir and lock & dam projects”.  Gathering such data and granting the public access to a national water database would provide the necessary information to enable concerned citizens, research institutions, and government agencies to accurately forecast and direct water resource management efforts.

(2) South-to-North Water Diversion Project

The current solution has been to divert water in China’s most ambitious civil works project yet, the South to North Water Diversion Project (STNWDP).  At an estimated cost of over $62 billion dollars, the canal stretches over 4,350 kilometers, with an expected ability to divert over 40 billion cubic meters of water each year. As of 2016, BWA expects the STNWDP to supply 1.1 billion cubic meters of water each year.  Unfortunately, Beijing will have to compete with mega-cities such as Chongqing and Shenzhen which also face similar water shortages. This diversion project, a hallmark of China’s central authority, can and should not be relied on as a silver bullet to Beijing’s water crisis. Reduced precipitation, a consequence of global climate change, in an already dry China has decreased freshwater reserves in the Yangtze River basin by over 17 percent.

(3) Recycled Water

The Beijing’s Water Authority’s goal is to increase supplies of recycled water from sewage treatment plants for environmental uses (i.e., road cleaning or municipal watering). In 2020, BWA expects consumption to reach 4.3 billion cubic meters, of which it is hoped that 1.2 billion cubic meters will be provided by recycled water.

Rather than increase the overall supply of water available for use, Beijing should aggressively pursue a water resource management policy that aims to reclaim existing water and reduce industrial, agricultural, and residential usage.  In fact, the Ministry of Finance is pursuing such steps, with a recent decision to expand their water resource tax pilot program to a larger area for tighter control on water usage.

In 2014, Beijing introduced a new pricing tier, increasing residential water prices 25 percent and introducing a separate pricing tier for businesses that saw a two-fold increase in water prices. This is in hope that water-heavy businesses, such as public bath houses and golf courses will reduce water usage under the new pricing model and be forced to implement water efficient systems. Many large industries have also introduced reclamation systems that now re-use up to 80 percent of their water. Additionally the building of new waste water treatment plants will increase the amount of water that can be reclaimed, and consequently reduce the utilisation of groundwater and diverted water.

Social and Political Implications

Beijing’s massive water diversion projects are aggressively redirecting water from other regions of the country – the Tibetan plateau, southern China, and surrounding municipalities.  Over time, other cities and people will start to feel the squeeze.

The implications for failing to resolve Beijing’s ongoing water crisis are most direct and dire for its citizens. An unresolved water crisis could mean a few things. Water rationing and quality could deteriorate to a point that no longer matches the lifestyle desired by middle class citizens. Middle class residents who once were enjoying multiple showers, aquatic recreation, and home-cooked meals may have to make notable concessions in their standard of living.  If the situation got severe enough, it could potentially spur a permanent human migration out of Beijing and possibly out of the country to parts of the world where water access is not an issue.

The Party has to consider how water security will impact on Beijing’s political influence. With its seat of power located in Beijing, the Party has governed China for 70 years under the modern ‘mandate of heaven’. If not addressed properly, however, the water crisis could challenge the status quo for the Party.

Water resource management is a growing global concern and Beijing has a great opportunity to set a precedent for the rest of the world when it comes to water resource management. This awesome challenge of ensuring China’s water security will likely contribute to the Party’s overall grasp of political power domestically and abroad.

Charlie Campbell (@madeincharlie_) is the lead China bridge architect at GoldenElms, shares daily vlogs in Chinese at MadeInCharlie, and an active Global Shaper through the World Economic Forum. Joseph Chang (@jochang6) is currently working in Enterprise Software in the San Francisco Bay Area. He studied Environmental Engineering at the United States Military Academy. Image credit: CC by bilwander/Flickr.


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