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As Beijing Prepares To Host Winter Olympics, Where Will It Get The Snow?


Among the questions raised by Beijing's bid for the Winter Olympics was this one. Where are they going to get the snow? In its evaluation of the bid, the Olympic Committee noted minimal snowfall in the area, so the games, they concluded, will rely completely on artificial snow. And they acknowledge that northern China suffers from severe water stress and that the Beijing-Zhangjiakou area in particular is becoming increasingly arid. To get a better sense of the environmental picture, we're joined now by Jennifer Turner. She directs the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center here in Washington. Thanks for coming in.

JENNIFER TURNER: Yeah. Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: And Jennifer, give us a sense of just how dry this part of China is.

TURNER: Well, North China only gets about 20 percent of all the precipitation in China. The deserts actually come very close to Beijing and it's kind of an interesting juxtaposition thinking of deserts and ski resorts right next to each other.

BLOCK: Well, yeah and does it make any sense to be building ski resorts - which they've been doing anyway besides the Olympic bid - in a semi-arid zone?

TURNER: Well, it's actually part of a global trend that a lot of countries want ski resorts. It's a great way to develop your tourism. But in China, where they've been building for the past 10 years the world's largest water transfer project - moving water from the relatively water rich south to the north - that takes a lot of energy. A lot of that water is quite dirty. They have to clean it, and it's there to quench the thirst the Beijing.

They're also in Northeast China planning to build desalination plants. You know, they want to use a lot of electricity to make water. I mean, they are high and dry and thirsty, and the locations around Beijing where these events are planned are, you know - they're no different.

BLOCK: One other aspect that we haven't touched on is deforestation that's going to take place to build these venues. Some of them are in national parks. These are protected reserves.

TURNER: Yeah, well, they will be encroached upon. And I mean, they will plant trees in other locations, but there aren't that many natural forests left. It's been a huge area for agriculture, something like 50 percent of the corn and the wheat. But as pressure on water has increased, the government has more or less decided that they're moving the grain belt. So they've shifted investment into irrigation to Northeast China.

So when I look at the water sector in China, it's like a giant chess game - you know? - using big engineering. We're moving water north. We're damning water in the southwest. We're moving farmers here. We're making snow. I mean, it's just - they can do it, and they will deliver. I mean, there will be snow. I mean, the Summer Olympics were fabulous right? The big question mark for me is what's it going to mean for the water in the long run?

BLOCK: One argument that the Chinese authorities say is that developing tourism can be a good thing in terms of water, that it shifts the economy away from agriculture industry and towards tourism could reduce water demands overall. What do you make of that argument?

TURNER: It's a little hard to say because keep in mind, Beijing has 22 million people. And this tourism belt - it's a very close belt. It's hard for me to see that this area of China is going to overall reduce their water.

BLOCK: When you think of water resources overall in China - how water is used - does it seem to you that the Winter Olympic Games will have a big impact, marginal impact overall?

TURNER: I think that for the surrounding area, they are going to get the water there to make the snow, and there will definitely be losers. And it could quite very well be local, smaller villages, remaining farming communities.

That said, maybe it will have a situation similar to what happened with the Beijing Summer Olympics where the government promised cleaner air, and they used the Olympics as one way to accelerate investment in renewable energy, moving out dirty factories. And they delivered blue skies. And the Chinese public saw those blue skies, and the people in Beijing like those blue skies. And then as we see in air quality get worse, the Chinese public is demanding, we want that back. And maybe all the attention that is going to be put on water issues in north China around the Olympics, it could also have maybe a positive effect of getting a different kind of conversation started about water.

BLOCK: Jennifer Turner, thanks again for coming in.

TURNER: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: Jennifer Turner directs the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center here in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.