Following the worst drought in 15 years, Beijing residents sink wells and siphon water

By Nona Tepper, September 16, 2014

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Residents in Beijing’s Shuimo community are thirsty. Their clothes are dirty, teeth yellowed and, occasionally, the men and women smell of sweat. These Beijingers need water and, following one of the worst droughts the city has seen since 1999, these smelly men and women pooled together RMB60,000, drilled 30-meters and sunk about 20 unauthorized wells in their small community located next to Tsinghua University.  

“Tap water supplies have never been very consistent here, but after July they started to smell foul,” a man surnamed Ma told the South China Morning Post. “That’s when residents started to drill for groundwater. Many have done so already in this community.”

Despite Beijing’s vow to limit city population to its water supply, underground reserves are so overexploited that groundwater levels have dropped more than 12 meters since 1999. Several days this July, daily water consumption rose to more than 3 million cubic meters, about twice the normal amount.

Residents said shortages started once more migrant workers moved into the area. In the last decade, the Shuimo population has ballooned to about 10 times its original size. Despite the surge in population, Beijing hadn’t increased the areas water supply.

Out of necessity, the Shuimo community has apparently sunk about 20 wells within the last month. The water from these wells is slightly muddy, and Ma said they let water flow for a few days to clear it of pollutants before piping it into households.

“The tap water is so smelly that I have to use bottled water to brush my teeth,” a local woman in her 20s said.

None of this construction has been approved by the city. With no meters installed to gauge use, residents are technically siphoning off this water without paying.

"What could we do? We need water," Ma said. 

Beijing’s long-term solution is that by 2019, the city will transport desalinated water from the Caofeidian Sea to supply about a third of the city’s water. The Beijing Enterprises Water Group said it plans to invest RMB17 billion in the project for building pipeline and the desalination technology. 

Once this technology is complete, the Shuimo community will see their legal water costs double. That is, if they don't keep siphoning off city water.

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