drought, water…

February 9th, 2009

It was the headline that got me:


And it got me with a “Hang on, wait a minute…”:

  1. How could the drought- the biggest drought in 50 years, apparently- not affect the supplies of water to Beijing? and:
  2. Aren’t Beijingers kinda spoilt? I mean, when I lived in Taiyuan, I had mains water supply only 3 times a day. The rest of the time my water came from a tank on the roof- but not for the washing machine, that was mains-only, which meant I had to be really organised about doing laundry. And my in laws in a village in Beijing’s Yanqing county get their water from a tap in the courtyard. And their mains supply is frequently cut off- especially, but by no means exclusively, over winter nights. Therefore (and because Yanqing is Beijing’s coldest county) they store water in a large vat in the kitchen. Isn’t it about time city Beijingers were made to understand the Damoclean sword that is the severe scarcity of water this city faces? Especially in a time of severe drought? (says he who showers habitually every morning and has never been much good at cultivating water conservation habits)

And so I went scanning through what turned out to be a compilation of short investigations into various drought-related issues looking for answers to the questions running around my not-yet-breakfasted brain, and here’s what I found:

“由于去年春夏秋季的降水量非常多,整个土地的含水量一直很足”,孙继松说,“就算100多天没有降水,但地表以下20厘米的含水量还是不错的,因 此,今年的干旱还比较轻。”孙继松说,如果某地区某一段时间的降水量明显低于常年平均水平,那么就可称为气象上的干旱,而真实的干旱取决于土壤含水量。

“Because rainfall last spring, summer and autumn was unusually high, the land’s water content has been very sufficient,” said Sun Jisong [chief forecaster in the Beijing Met Office], “Although there’s been no rain for over 100 days, the water content 20 cm below the ground surface is still not bad, therefore this year’s drought is relatively light.” Sun Jisong said that if a certain region had markedly less rain than the annual average for a certain period of time, that could be called a meteorological drought, but a true drought is decided by soil moisture content.

根据中央气象台资料显示,本市自2008年10月26日以来,仅出现一次降水,降水量为0.1毫米,较常年同期降水量11毫米,创下自1971 年以来的无降水的最长记录。孙继松介绍,从目前的资料情况分析看,未来十天左右下雪的可能性很小,北京旱情还将继续,并有发展趋势。根据目前气候资料分 析,进入本月中旬后,本市才有望出现一次降水过程。厚度预计在4到5毫米,接近常年的降雪厚度,但此次降雪不会对干旱形成太多改善。据《新京报》报道,北 京市人工影响天气办公室工作人员称,只要有降水天气系统出现,就会进行人工增雨雪的作业。

Data from the National Meteorological Centre show that from 26 October 2008 this city has had only one rainfall of 0.1 mm compared with an annual average of 11 mm for the same period, setting the record for the longest period with no rain since 1971. Sun Jisong said that from an analysis of current data, the chances of snowfall over the next 10 or so days are very small and the drought situation in Beijing will continue, and has a developing trend. According to an analysis of current data, this city could hopefully see precipitation from the middle of the month. The amount is predicted to be 4 or 5 mm, approaching the annual average snowfall, but this snowfall won’t significantly ameliorate the drought. According to a report in The Beijing Times, a worker at the Beijing Artificial Weather Influencing Office said that if any precipitation weather system appears, they will undertake artificial rain- and snowfall work.


Many citizens, on the basis of folk sayings such as “At Greater Cold and Lesser Cold it doesn’t snow, at Lesser Heat and Greater Heat the fields crack open” speculate that Beijing could have a drought this summer. Sun Jisong said that although the sayings make sense, but a winter drought does not mean drought will continue in the summer. There is no necessary connection between them, therefore on the basis of the current drought one cannot infer that Beijing will experience a drought this summer.

So, as usual, parts of the translation have been thoroughly mangled under my incompetence. But this time I’m also going to admit to playing fast and loose with a couple of things:

I mean, I quite deliberately chose to translate ‘非常’ as ‘unusual’ although other options are available. I perhaps shouldn’t have, but I wanted to make a point. See, Beijing experienced one long, continuous drought from.. when? 1999? up to 2007. Yes, plenty of rain and snow fell during that period of drought, but the total was considerably below the long-term average. It’s true that Beijing did get plenty of rain last year- in fact, on September 10 last year the Miyun Reservoir was brimming with 260 million cubic metres more water than at the same time in 2007– but that’s only one year. I dislike what strikes me as the rather cavalier attitude shown in the first paragraph I translate- geez, you’d think Sun Jisong was a Kiwi- “Yeah, she’ll be right mate, got plenty of water stored up from last year.” What happens if this drought continues? What’ll they tell us next year? Shouldn’t all that water stored up be used as conservatively as possible? Y’know, save it for a rainy dry day year?

And sure, judging by what I’ve read on the subject, global warming is supposed to bring more precipitation to Beijing, but higher temperatures will lead to greater evaporation, which apparently means this promised extra rainfall will not relieve Beijing’s chronic water shortage. That means things like water recycling, rain-water storage and conservation are still absolutely essential.

Alright, enough ranting. Let me just state yet again that one of my biggest worries about Beijing’s future is water. And I think far too little emphasis is placed on rural China (especially in expat circles). And therefore this drought really worries me.

One Response to “drought, water…”

  1. China faces worst drought in 50 years; wheat crops suffer | Worldfocus Says:

    […] “Bezdomny” argues that Beijing’s wasteful water use comes at the expense of rural areas: When I […]