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June 10, 2011

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Drought drama

WITH water, water everywhere in the Zhoushan Archipelago, there's nary a drop to drink during severe drought. Yang Jian finds out how resilient residents struggle with water rationing.

Attention please, the toilets now have water to flush, please use the toilets now." This announcement was broadcast several times a day at high schools throughout in drought-stricken Zhoushan City of east China's Zhejiang Province.

It was part of citywide water restrictions lasting from June 1 to 6, when the annual "plum rains" meant the end of drought in some areas, and the end of rationing.

At the No. 3 Shenjiamen High School, students ran to the toilets. Long lines soon formed.

For 19-year-old senior Chen Dan, "toilets have water" was a piece of news as good as "no exams today."

Chen and her 39 classmates were preparing for the National College Entrance Exam that was held from Tuesday to yesterday. When there was water, the school gave them toilet privileges ahead of classmates not sitting the exam.

"We heard the broadcast several times a day at the beginning, but the frequency dropped to three to five times a day later as the drought continued," says Chen.

A citywide water shortage hit the Zhoushan Archipelago in the East China Sea, the easternmost territory of China, as the worst drought in 50 years plagued the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River from early this year.

The affected provinces included Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Jiangxi, Hubei and Hunan.

The city of Zhoushan, itself one of the islands, did not receive sufficient rain from last August until last weekend. Thus, 20 of the city's 29 reservoirs were unable to supply water. By the end of May, the city had only enough stored water to meet the needs of 970,000 residents for two months.

From June 1 the city government began water rationing. Residents were only able to use running water for five hours per day, from 6am to 8am and 5pm to 8pm.

It was the first time water rationing had been enforced on a city that seldom faced water shortages. One 83-year-old Zhoushan native said she had never experienced such a severe shortage before.

The rationing was lifted on Monday, when the rains came to more than 1,000 islands of the archipelago. Rationing, even for a short time, dramatically affected daily life, and the people adapted to the water crisis in different ways.

It's hard to imagine the drought in the archipelago where there is water, water everywhere but nary a drop to drink.

But Zhoushan's average rainfall from January to May was only 160 millimeters, 60 percent less than in past years and the lowest ever recorded, says Zhou Guoping, deputy director of the city's flood, drought and typhoon prevention office.

The reservoirs that supply 30 percent of the city's needs went dry. The government increased the amount of fresh water piped in from Ningbo City and seawater desalinization plants, mainly supplying small islands, began working around the clock.

But there was far from enough.

"Rationing was a tough decision, but we had to do it," says Zhou.

Workers turned off the valves during conservation periods. Residents of high-rise buildings had trouble getting any water, even during supply periods, because there wasn't enough water pressure to reach upper floors.

Hotels and schools also faced limits.

People rushed to buy water barrels on May 28, the day after the city announced rationing would begin on June 1.

"Almost all families, including mine, began getting up at 6am to collect tap water in the barrels," says Zhou.

Many wells that had been unused for decades were again tapped by housewives to wash clothes, since the quality was not high enough for drinking. Health authorities advised residents how to purify well water and avoid disease.

Even in the city administration building, a barrel of water and small bucket was placed at every toilet for flushing.

The city needs about 170,000 tons of water every day, but rationing reduced that to around 140,000 tons, says Shen Yiming, deputy director of the Zhoushan Water Authority.

In good times, the water supply includes around 80,000 tons a day from Ningbo by pipeline, 50 tons from reservoirs collecting rainfall and another 45 tons from desalinization plants, mostly for small islands.

In 1966 Zhoushan was also hit by drought, but it wasn't as severe as this one, says Wu Qinglin, deputy director of the Zhoushan Meteorological Bureau.

Construction worker Wu Heping went to great lengths to ensure his 14-year-old daughter has enough water at their 7th-floor apartment in Shenjiamen, a famous fishing port. The girl didn't realize that the water she sometimes used to wash her face and hands was bottled mineral water, and it was expensive. She was preparing for the High School Entrance Exam in mid-June.

"If she knew that, she would refuse it and say it was too wasteful," says 45-year-old Wu, who usually lays irrigation pipe. He says the family isn't wealthy and the mineral water, around 14 yuan (US$2.16) per gallon, was expensive.

Because they live on the 7th floor, they got very little water. Wu's wife got up at 6am every day to collect the small stream tap water for storage in two barrels, but after it was used for cooking, there wasn't much left.

So that his daughter could study comfortably for exams, Wu gave her bottled mineral water to drink. When there was no tap water at home, they poured the mineral water into a basin so she could wash her hands and face. But she didn't know her washing water was bottled.

"We hope the drought will end after the exam but until then we must carry on," he says.

Wu's job is building water pipelines and every day he shuttles between the main island of Zhoushan and many islands in the city jurisdiction. During the drought his job was to transport fresh water by cargo vessel to Xiazhi (Shrimp-Shape) Island, a county where more than 20,000 people depended on four reservoirs, all of them dry.

Xiazhi, a 16-square-kilometer island, was the worst-hit county in Zhoushan. Water was mainly supplied by desalinizing saltwater at a plant on the island and by importing water on cargo vessels. For the first time, water was imported every day to fill reservoirs.

Xiazhi County limited each family to 2 tons of water per month, and they were to pay 20 yuan, almost five times the regular price, to buy an additional ton.

"It is a beautiful island. Without the drought, I would choose to live on the island rather than in Shanghai," Wu says.

Most residents have been fishermen for generations and the small island is famous for squid. From June 1, the annual moratorium on fishing in the East China Sea went into effect; it is expected to last for two or three months.

Since they couldn't fish, most people were busy carrying water from mountain wells that had not been used in decades.

"We had to push residents to save water, because there wasn't enough fresh water from Zhoushan itself," says Chen Zhiya, an official with the Xiazhi County government.

She says the county's one desalinization plant operated almost around the clock, but many residents complained the water was yellow and salty.

"We had to open the tap for at least five minutes to flush the rusty water out, which meant the 2-ton quota was not enough," says housewife Yao Li.

Shi Fangting placed a water jug under the sink to collect all used water for other purposes. The 60-year-old woman uses water purification tablets distributed by the city.

"Saving the water is a good habit and I will continue even after the drought," she says.

"I had to learn how to wash my own clothes at school," says 16-year-old Jiang Haonan who boards at a high school in Ningbo City. He goes home on weekends, taking his laundry for his mother to do. But she told him she didn't have enough water to wash his clothes. He had to wear his school uniform for another week.

After Zhoushan residents struggled with water rationing for three days, a heavy rain finally arrived Saturday night, with crashing thunder and lightning.

Families put out water jugs, barrels and all kinds of receptacles to collect rainwater.

On Xiazhi Island 30-year-old Ding Xiaohai found an old jug specially made for collecting water dripping from the eaves in the old days. It was his grandfather's and hadn't been used for dozens of years.

Before the county began building reservoirs on the island 50 years ago, people always collected rainwater under the eaves as the main source of water for daily use.

Ding says he plans to use the rainwater to bathe his 11-year-old son. For several weeks there wasn't enough water for proper bathing. The rainwater is very clean because the environment is not polluted and it can be drunk after boiling, says Ding.

"The rain brings us hope, because even if the drought continues, we can still drink the rainwater," he says. "Life is inconvenient but we are luckier than people living in Hubei and Hunan provinces where the drought is more severe."

Ding's wife first uses the collected rainwater to rinse rice and then to wash dishes. Then she uses it to wash clothes, then to mop the floor and last to flush the toilet.

After it rained for three consecutive days, the city ended rationing on Monday.

The drought was declared over in Zhoushan and in other parched areas in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River.

"We are happy to hear the news, but will continue to save water," says Zhi Puhui, a resident.

The city is building more reservoirs to collect rainwater and laying a second pipeline to bring in river water from outside the city in Ningbo, according to Shen Yiming, deputy director of the Zhoushan Water Authority.

The pipe is expected to be completed by September, tripling the amount of water transported.

From then on, the city will not have to fear drought, Shen says.

On Tuesday senior Chen Dan started taking the National College Entrance Examination with her classmates. They no longer had to wait for the campus loudspeaker to tell them they could go to the toilet.

"We will celebrate after the exam," says Chen, "not only for our graduation, but also for the end of the long drought."

Desalinization costly option

The ocean covers 71 percent of the Earth's surface and contains 97 percent of the planet's water, so it would seem that desalinization could help solve the world's water shortage. Right?

The answer is yes, but - the pumping, processing and transporting is very expensive and uses a lot of electricity, and unless that's clean energy, desalinization can worsen atmospheric pollution. As a result, desalinization is generally a last resort for water.

Still, some plants are state-of-the art, such as the plant made with Israeli equipment in the Tianjin-Bohai development zone.

But in Zhoushan, the scattered desalinization plants are fairly old-fashioned and residents complain about the salty taste of tap water received during the recent drought and water rationing period.

Various technologies may be used, such as reverse osmosis desalinization and vapor compression.

The cost is generally 6 yuan a ton for the seawater desalinization in China, while tap water fee is around 3.5 yuan in urban areas, according to Shen Yiming, deputy director of the Zhoushan Water Authority. The larger the scale, the lower the cost, he observes.

Zhoushan City plans to build a 100,000-ton seawater desalinization plant on Liuheng Island.

The world's largest desalination plant is the Jebel Ali Desalination Plant in the United Arab Emirates that is capable of producing 300 million cubic meters of water per year.

The largest desalination plant in the United States is in Tampa Bay, Florida, which began desalinating 34.7 million cubic meters of water per year in December 2007.

A total of 13,080 desalination plants produce more than 12 billion gallons of water a day around the world.

How to save water at home

The current drought is a wake-up call for water saving in daily life, even for those in cities not involved in the water crisis. There's no cause for complacency and Shanghai's water is limited.

Here are some tips for saving water at home:

? Fix all leaks and dripping faucets; don't let the toilet run.

? Don't let water run constantly while you wash your hands, brush your teeth and shower.

? Put a brick or large object into the toilet tank to displace water and save the amount of flush water.

? Prepare a barrel to collect waste water to flush toilets, mop floors, water plants.

? Use the washing machine only when there's enough for a full load.

? Wash dishes with the water used to wash rice and cook noodles. The alkaline content cleans oil more easily than tap water.

? Water flowers and plants with waste water from fish tanks.

? Don't water flowers and plants in the direct sunshine. Water quickly evaporates.

? Use paper or used tea bags to remove grease on tableware before using water to wash.

? Clean vehicles with wet towels, not a water hose and spray.


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