Three millennia of water supply: past and present conditions of Beijing’s water sources

By By Jing Ai / 07-25-2013 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The Yongding River plays a siginificant role as a water supplier for Beijing in history.

The roots of ancient civilization in Beijing, and its subsequent development, were closely connected with the availability of water. From as early as the Mesolithic period, water was incredibly abundant in the region surrounding present-day Beijing, nourishing the hominid ancestors of humans and the early humans that inhabited the area. The Yongding River, along with other rivers, created and alluvial plain lush with vegetation and teeming with wild animals where the “Sinanthropus” (the disused genus of which Homo erectus pekinensis, or the “Peking man” was a species) and the Upper Cave man thrived. In the Bronze Age into the Iron Age the area’s water resources were suitable for agriculture.
When he deposed the Shang Dynasty in the 11th century BCE, King Wu, the founder of the Zhou Dynasty, granted the decedents of the Yellow Emperor (a legendary monarch in ancient China) the city-state Ji. He also gave the ancient state of Yan, which encompassed areas of present-day Beijing to his kinsmen, the Duke of Shao. Later, Yan conquered Ji and moved its capital to Ji’s walled city (also called Ji), located at today’s Beijing neighborhood Guang’anmen (the western gate of Peking during the Ming and Qing Dynasties).
Nanjing in the Liao Dynasty (located in the southwest of present-day Beijing) and Zhongdu in the Jin Dynasty (present-day Beijing) were both built on Ji City with minor changes. By that time (the tenth through thirteenth centuries), the Yongding River had drifted further south and both Nanjing and Zhongdu relied on Lianhua Chi (Lotus Pond) as main water source, using a channel called Maweigou to divert water into the city. During the Yuan Dynasty, Dadu City (Khanbalik) was centered in Qionghua Island (at White Pagoda Hill in present-day Beihai Park) and the Gaoliang River replaced Lianhua Chi as a more plentiful source of water. In fact, the main reason that the Yuan government abandoned Zhongdu and established Dadu City 57 years into its reign was to seek sufficient water resources to support a both geographically larger and more populous city than Zhongdu.
The water supply from Lianhua Chi and Gaoliang River was still not enough to supply the populace of Zhongdu and Dadu City, respectively. Additionally, the water transport infrastructure was insufficient to transport enough grain to the capitals. Both the Jin and Yuan Dynasties built canals to address these needs.
China had a long history of water management projects in the area. As early as the second year of the Jiaping era (250 AD) during the Wei Dynasty (the Three Kingdoms period), a dam was built on Yongding River in order to direct water to the east for irrigation. The overall length of this diversion canal was approximately 200 kilometers; it irrigated and area of more than 200,000 mu (13,340 hectares). This diversion canal was rehabilitated during the Northern Wei Dynasty and Jin. It became the earliest water conservancy facility in Beijing.
During the course of the Jin Dynasty, this diversion canal was abandoned. In the year of Taiding during the reign of Emperor Shizong, attempts were made to direct the Yongding River to supplement the city moat in the north of Zhongdu. The water from the moat would then be directed to Tongzhouto to flow into the North Canal. The plans were thwarted however, when the sheer height of the water destroyed the dam and flooded villages and farmland; to stop the flooding the head of the canal had to be blocked. Quick to learn from this disaster, engineers dug a water channel in Wengshan Lake under Jade Spring Hill (west of the Summer Palace in present-day Beijing) during the reign of Emperor Zhangzong, directing the Gaoliang River to the city moat in northern Zhongdu. From then onwards, grain could be directly transported to Zhongdu by water. This was the earliest recorded canal in Beijing.
In the Yuan Dynasty, the scientist and engineer Guo Shoujing advised Kublai Khan (the fifth emperor of Yuan Dynasty) to direct Baifu Spring to confluence with Wengshan Lake, flowing to Jishuitan. This plan utilized the old water channel from the Jin Dynasty, but added a gate to regulate the water level. Kublai Khan renamed the canal Tonghui River (Tong means “to connect” and Hui means “benefits”) and rewarded Guo Shoujing amply.
Throughout its history, in various dynasties and bearing various names, Beijing has repeatedly faced serious issues of flooding and ensuring adequate municipal water. In order to tackle these issues, the Guanting Reservoir, the first large reservoir for both Beijing and North China, was constructed on the Yongding River in Huailai County, Hebei Province between 1951 to 1954. Other reservoirs such as Miyun Reservoir, Huairou Reservoir and Shisanling Reservoir are important sources of water for Beijing as well.
Statistics show that Beijing’s water resources decline each year. After the Guanting Reservoir was constructed, serious soil erosion in areas upstream has resulted in sediment building up in the reservoir, reducing its capacity some 27% percent. The mountain sources of the Yongding River are also drying up, and wetlands and mountain spring are always decreasing. The average annual loss of wetland around Beijing is 40.84 square kilometers. Affected both by nature and society, Beijing is becoming a city perpetually threatened by water-shortage. Although the application of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project will improve the water supply for Beijing, the city should take active steps to conserve water and develop a scientific blueprint for economically and socially sustainable development.
Jing Ai is from Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 439, Apr. 15, 2013
  Translated by Zhang Mengying
Revised by Charles Horne