BEIJING—On a Saturday morning in late August, about a dozen university students, professors, and middle-aged Beijing locals stand by a row of apartments in northwestern Beijing. Once an outskirt of the city known for its natural springs and reed-filled ponds, the area now looks just like another part of the sprawling capital: wide roads lined with set-back buildings, crowded with pedestrians. It’s home to some of China’s best schools, Peking and Tsinghua universities. One member of the group—an environmental society called the Green Earth Volunteers, led by one of China’s most well-known environmentalists, Wang Yongchen—asks a local if he knows how to get to the Wanquan River.
“That’s a river?” the man asks, and offers directions to what he says is a nearby ditch that sometimes puddles. After a few minutes, the Green Earth Volunteers arrive at a narrow canal holding a few centimeters of water. The bed of the Wanquan, which means “ten thousand springs,” is now paved over with concrete, the result of attempts to keep water from soaking into the ground when the canal was full. A pipe, once used to carry water into the small river, lies exposed to the sun, as do patches of dry ground. Ivy creeps along the sides of the canal, as if trying to reach what’s left of the water.
The Wanquan is one of thousands of rivers in China that have dried and disappeared after decades of declining rainfall, prolonged droughts, exploding population growth, industrial expansion, and a series of disastrous reservoirs built during the early days of the Communist Republic. The problem is most obvious in Beijing, which was chosen to be China’s capital in part because of its abundance of streams and freshwater springs. Beijing consumed 3.6 billion cubic meters (127 billion cubic feet or 950 billion gallons) of water in 2012, far more than the 2.1 billion cubic meters per year the city has at its disposal in nearby rivers and in the ground. The city’s water resources, about 120 cubic meters per person a year, are well below the 500 cubic meters the UN deems a situation of “absolute water scarcity.” Beijing has been supplementing the shortfall by diverting water from the nearby province of Hebei and trying to lower water usage in the city.