Environment

Water, water, not everywhere

Polluting a reservoir in the interests of great television

Turning off the tap: China needs to use water more efficiently

Could a battle between the forces of Zhuge Liang and Cao Cao in 209 AD really cause a present day environmental disaster?

It seems that it could. The disaster site was the Yangxi Reservoir in Zhejiang province, which was used by a TV crew to film the famous ‘Red Cliff’ battle scene for a new series about the Three Kingdoms period. The scene required an armada of ships to be set on fire. Unfortunately, the pyrotechnics left the reservoir coated with diesel. Not good news for the 300,000 residents of Yongkang, who rely on the reservoir for water.

According to the Beijing Morning Post, the reservoir’s administrative staff – who had given the TV crew permission to film there in the belief it would make the area a tourist destination – were soon having a rethink. The film crews were asked to leave when the extent of the mess became clear.

But not soon enough for Huang Xinfa, the director of Yangxi Reservoir’s Irrigation Administration Bureau, to avoid the chop, Xinhua reports. It turns out that Huang had authorised the filming without gaining the permission of either the Environmental Protection Bureau or the province’s Water Resources Administration.

Another day, another rogue official dismissed. But the incident provides a glimpse of the wider issue of water conservation – a growing concern for Beijing.

Chinese civilization, after all, existed long before the discovery of oil; but it could not have thrived without adequate water supplies.

The lesson has not been lost on China’s present leadership. In Beijing itself there is an ongoing battle to ensure scarce water supplies are used more sensibly. A large part of the campaign is to cut down on waste by providing for more water to be recycled through newly constructed treatment plants.

The 21CN Business Herald reports that some progress is being made. Cheng Jing, director general of the Beijing Water Authority told the newspaper that 600 million cubic metres of water is now capable of being treated and recycled. That’s the equivalent of 17% of Beijing’s total water supply.

However, at present only 57% of that capacity is being utilised, which indicates that there is still some way to go to persuade consumers of the benefits of recycling. Current users include nine big industrial firms, as well as farmers. Recycled water is also being used to water Beijing’s urban vegetation – much of which was planted before the Olympics to ‘greenify’ the city.

Other industrial firms have been reluctant to use recycled water, fearing it might damage their machinery. This points to a tougher challenge in encouraging wider retail consumer uptake in future. “The emphasis of our work is to improve the quality of recycled water,” Cheng agrees.

Another problem is the water’s pricing. “The current [tap] water price is too low,” says Tsinghua University’s Fu Tao. Which is to say, the differential isn’t great enough to make industrial consumers think of switching, despite recycled water being priced at only Rmb1 per tonne. Still not cheap enough!

One answer is to raise the price of tap water – then the recycled stuff will suddenly look a lot more attractive. This is a matter currently under discussion, says Cheng.


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