China has the world's fourth largest fresh water reserves, but rapid economic expansion is straining those supplies, with more than 400 cities facing severe shortages. China's unquenchable thirst may threaten growth and stability in the most populous nation on Earth.
A 74-year-old woman struggles to push down the lever of a rusty pump, to draw water from a cistern beneath her house in Shanhou village, about 100 kilometers outside Beijing.
The nearby Juma River used to supply the cistern, but it is now dry, and she depends on rain to fill the tank.
Now, she says, she is lucky to have water left from last year's rains. Since the river dried out, she has sometimes had to depend on friends who have deeper wells than she does.
For as long as anyone can remember, the river has been Shanhou's only source of water. That was until recently, when the government diverted virtually all the river's water to the capital, Beijing.
The woman says she and her sons used to plant wheat, corn and soybeans, but now the river is dry, their fields no longer produce.
Her sons have had to migrate to Beijing in search of work, becoming what economists refer to as environmental refugees.
Despite having the fourth largest fresh water reserves in the world, officials say more than 400 Chinese cities, including the capital, face severe water shortages. Experts say the shortages are a result of droughts, overexploitation of water resources, increasing pollution, inefficient delivery methods and temperature increases.
Elizabeth Economy at the Council on Foreign Relations, a research organization in New York, considers water scarcity China's Number One challenge.
"I think the worst case scenario is already transpiring in parts of China, where you're getting people who no longer can live in the villages and the towns where they grew up, but are being forced to migrate because of lack of water, or lack of arable land," she said.
She says studies predict that, by 2020, there could be 30 million so-called environmental refugees in China, many searching for work in the cities, as the government continues to divert water from rivers and lakes to meet growing urban demands.
There are concerns that China's inability to irrigate its fields may strain global food supplies and push up the price of grain.
Scientists say the water table under some of China's main wheat-growing regions has been dropping by one-and-a-half meters each year. The more the water table drops, the more expensive it becomes for farmers to obtain it, because they have to dig deeper wells. Many, such as those in Shanhou village, simply cannot afford this, and so they abandon farming altogether.
Despite an abundant wheat harvest in 2004, rising demand was one factor that forced the country, a wheat exporter until 2003, to purchase about eight million tons in 2004.
American environmentalist Lester Brown, author of the book, "Who Will Feed China?," says China's rapid industrialization is endangering its ability to feed itself.
"In a country where the goal is economic growth and job creation, you do not use scarce water to produce grain," he explained. "You use it to expand industrial output, and that's exactly what's happening in Northern China now. Indeed, in the high river basin, it's quite possible that, by 2010, there'll be very little irrigated agriculture left at all."
Water diversion is causing rivers and streams to disappear at an alarming rate. The Ministry of Water Resources recently admitted total wetland has shrunk by 26 percent over the past 50 years. In the western province of Qinghai alone, 2,000 lakes have dried up, affecting levels in the Yellow River, one of China's great waterways.
Water loss is also threatening industrial production. China is building more hydroelectric dams to meet soaring energy needs, but these depend on seasonal water flow. In one case last year, falling levels on the Yellow River forced the Huangheyuan hydropower station in Qinghai to suspend operations only three years after going into service.
China's government is making highly publicized and expensive efforts to ease the water problem.
In 2002, construction began on a gigantic south to north diversion project to take water from the Yangtze River. At an initial cost of nearly $15 billion, the first phase is supposed to be completed in 2007. But critics say water diversion is part of the problem.
Other high profile projects include a 30,000 square-meter housing complex in Beijing, featuring a rainwater recycling system. In the industrial southern city of Shenzhen, officials have introduced measures to use seawater to flush toilets.
However, analysts say more realistic solutions are to finance more wastewater recycling projects, and, more importantly, to raise water prices, so that people have a financial incentive to use water more efficiently.
Despite price increases in the past five years, China's water is still among the world's cheapest. The World Bank estimates the water price to farmers for irrigation is about 40 percent of cost.
Researcher Elizabeth Economy says China's Communist leaders have chosen a slow approach, because drastic rises might trigger unrest that could threaten their hold on power.
"Part of the problem is that, when it comes to issues like raising the price of water, the government has a serious concern about instability, that it will face protests and local unrest," she said. "And in a country that's not transparent, and in a country where officials are not necessarily directly accountable to an electorate, this is cause for some serious consternation."
On a Beijing sidewalk, a 45-year-old factory worker, Mr. Zhao, says he knows not to waste water after seeing the government's conservation campaigns. However, he is not sure the message is getting through.
"The government should really do more to promote conservation of water resources. For example, car washes waste too much water, because they do not recycle it," he said. " And, I see water pipes broken at construction sites that do not get repaired, even a full day after people call to report the problem."
Time is running out for Beijing, with some analysts predicting the city may be forced to begin water rationing by the time the 2008 Olympics come around.