The view from the top of the luxurious Morgan Centre (which will soon host a seven-star hotel) down onto Beijing's Olympic Green, where the 2008 Summer Games will begin in less than 500 days, is breathtaking. There, far below, lies the stunning Herzog & de Meuron-designed "bird nest" Olympic Stadium. Right next to it is the equally mesmerizing National Aquatics Center, a square structure with bubbled blue translucent walls known as the Water Cube. International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge has called this soon-to-be-completed sports complex "nothing short of staggering."
How successfully Beijing has turned the Games into a global coming-out party is—for anyone who, like me, came to know China when Mao still held sway—a mind-bending accomplishment. What has happened here in the intervening years is perhaps the most dramatic story of national transformation in human history. However, the environmental costs of China's hell-bent development have been severe. The Aquatics Center in particular poses one critical question: where will all the water to fill this bold but massive architectural masterpiece—and to supply the Games—come from? After all, Beijing sits on the parched North China Plain, one of the most densely populated regions of the world, with 65 percent of China's agriculture and only 24 percent of its water. Moreover, because only 278 of China's 661 major cities have sewage-treatment plants, 70 percent of the country's rivers are severely polluted.
One can drive a hundred miles in any direction from Beijing and never cross a healthy river. Heading north to Shanxi province, China's major producer of coal, one passes river after river that has dried up. And in 80 percent of those Shanxi rivers that are still flowing, water quality has been rated Grade V by Chinese officials, "unfit for human contact" or for agricultural or industrial use.
As you drive south across Hebei and Henan provinces, the cradle of Chinese civilization, the situation is no better. Reaching the famed Marco Polo Bridge over the Yongding River on a recent trip, we crossed our first parched riverbed. From there to the Yellow River, some 300 miles away, we traversed the Zhi, Ming, Anyang, Sha, Zhang, Huai and many other legendary rivers that show as blue lines on the map; all of them are now almost bone dry. All that remains to memorialize these watercourses are highway bridges, left behind like vestigial organs. The Yellow River itself, once known as "China's Sorrow" because of its propensity to flood, killing millions, has in Henan been reduced to a modest-size channel. At its lower reaches in Shandong, it is not uncommon for the river to cease flowing into the Bohai Sea altogether.
Locals seem pretty sure that these rivers—which have been dammed, diverted and pumped dry—may be gone forever: they've begun planting wheat and vegetables and building large polyethylene greenhouses on their flood plains. Some have even installed heavy equipment in the dry river bottoms to mine sand for China's dizzying construction boom.
What is the answer for the 250 million thirsty people who live on the North China Plain? Their per capita daily water use is only one eighth that of Americans, so there are limits to how much more they can conserve. Drought, possibly caused by climate change and overuse of riparian water, has forced farmers to turn to groundwater. But overextraction has caused water tables to fall by as much as 10 feet a year. So desperate officials have taken to making substantial investments in "precipitation-inducement technologies," or cloud seeding. Using aircraft, meteorological balloons and even rockets and artillery shells, they've been attempting to shoot passing clouds full of rainmaking chemicals. The China Meteorological Administration—which even has an Institute of Artificial Rain—reports that hundreds of aircraft and thousands of rockets and shells are used each year in the effort. Such campaigns have been only modestly successful and have created tensions between different localities, each claiming that clouds are being "intercepted" upwind by the other and their precious moisture stolen!
Then there is the monumental South-North Water Transfer Project, a $62.5 billion plan to move 50 billion cubic meters of water via three new diversion projects from the Yangtze River in the central part of the country to the North China Plain. The first phase of this Herculean project, the 722-mile-long Eastern Route along the old Grand Canal, is scheduled to come online later this year. But some environmentalists fear that shifting the increasingly polluted water of the Yangtze northward will also introduce a whole host of new toxic pollutants to the breadbasket of China.
No one knows what the consequences of all these Promethean efforts will be. For a century and a half, China's inability to defend itself against the industrialized world inculcated it with a deeply felt yearning to regain fuqiang, or "wealth and power." In the truly magnificent facilities being built for the Olympics, one can see a clear manifestation of this understandable urge to restore Chinese greatness. The question is whether China's limited natural-resource base can sustain the magnitude of such an ambition. With water, the country is confronting the edge of one very inflexible environmental envelope. Beijing's glorious Water Cube is a symbol both of China's remarkable accomplishments, and its all-too-pressing limits.