JIUZHANBAO, China » A few times a year, rains sprinkle the dry mountains north of Beijing, feeding streams that trickle down to catchments like the Yunzhou Reservoir. From its shores, the water shimmers and sparkles, a mirage that local farmers can see but not touch.
"We can’t use it," said Cheng Lin, a 68-year-old farmer who, like others here, plants corn once a year and hopes for spring rains. "It’s for others, not us."
Instead, the water is earmarked for the greater Beijing area to the south, and in the winter increasingly for making snow.
China, which has been constructing a tourism belt around the city centered on water-intensive sports like skiing, is now building a clutch of new ski slopes in a bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.
The International Olympic Committee inspected the region’s facilities last week, and it is expected to make a final decision in July. If Beijing wins, it will become the first city to host both the Winter and Summer Games, which it held in 2008. Its only competitor is the Kazakh city of Almaty.
According to Beijing’s bid, the environmental impact will be "eco-friendly" and "sustainable." In its three-volume filing to the IOC, organizers say they will use renewable energy and sustainable building materials. Forest cover lost to ski slopes or other facilities will be offset with new tree plantings elsewhere, in compliance with IOC requirements.
"As there are abundant water resources near the ski resorts and the melted snow will be recycled," the bid says, "snow-making during the Games will not have any negative impact on the local ecosystem."
Abundant is not a word often used to describe Beijing’s water supply. Although some parts of Beijing receive up to 23 inches of rain a year, the mountain area, where the ski resorts are being built and the Games are slated to be held, receives 15 or 16 inches, making it semiarid.
Two-thirds of that precipitation falls in the summer. In December and January, areas like Chongli, where the reservoir is, receive about a tenth of an inch of precipitation, meaning they are usually barren throughout the winter.
"It just doesn’t snow in Beijing," said Zhang Junfeng, an independent water expert who has written and published widely on Beijing’s water troubles. "People get ideas by watching television and sports and think it’s a great pastime, but it’s not sustainable."
Beijing used to be rich in water resources, but as its population has doubled over the past 25 years to an estimated 22 million, it has dried up. A $62 billion project to divert water to the north from the water-rich south has begun, but it is expected only to stabilize the situation.
"Of course they shouldn’t have ski resorts," said Hu Kanping, a retired hydrologist who writes reports for the Chinese nongovernmental organization Friends of Nature. In a 2011 report, he wrote that the 11 ski resorts then open in Beijing used an average of about 1 billion gallons of water a year, or enough water for 42,000 people.
Beijing has proposed the Chongli area for events like snowboarding, freestyle skiing and cross-country skiing. Chongli has several ski slopes, but at least one other Olympic ski run and a sledding run are under construction. One of the larger ski resorts that had closed has reopened, and another is planning to expand if Beijing wins the Games.
Yanqing National Park, which has the only substantial mountain near Beijing, was chosen for Alpine skiing, which requires longer runs and steeper descents. Yanqing has no existing ski slopes.
Beijing and local officials did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.
Experts who follow the ski industry say that its expansion into water-stressed environments like Beijing is increasingly the norm. Relatively dry or warm countries like Turkey, India and Pakistan all have new resorts. The site of the last Winter Games, the Russian resort town of Sochi, gets only 21 inches of precipitation a year, which forced organizers to stockpile nearly 600,000 cubic yards of snow to ensure adequate cover.
Carmen de Jong, a professor at the University of Savoy in France who studies water and Alpine sports, says such developments are ecologically unsustainable.
"This kind of development is a Martian-like plan," she said. "It’s completely artificial."
The alternative to Beijing this year, Almaty, is not much better. It receives just 22 inches of precipitation a year, and it relies on dams and water towers to feed its snow-making machines.
Resorts in the Alps, by contrast, regularly get more than 40 inches of precipitation a year. Some of the most famous areas get nearly 60 inches. Even these regions are now relying on artificial snow because of climate change.
Another concern to conservationists is that both Beijing and Almaty plan to build Olympic ski resorts in their national parks. Beijing’s organizers are planning using Xiaohaituo Mountain in Yanqing National Park for the Alpine events. The mountain is part of a protected nature reserve, and automobile traffic is banned. Officials have said construction will begin there only if Beijing wins the bid.
Studies show that ski runs increase erosion and destroy plant life beyond simply the growth cut down for the runs; they can also cause permanent damage to topsoil and plants beneath the surface. Artificial snow worsens this problem because it often creates an ice sheet over the ground, leading to the growth of mold underneath.
During a recent visit, in February, the Haituoshan Mountain Range had no snow at all. Locals said that water for snow would come from the nearby Guanting Reservoir.
Zeng Lian, a local farmer, said he hoped Beijing would win the bid. "The leaders have been here several times, and if Beijing wins, we can develop," he said.
A ski resort would provide revenue for his village, Haituo, long after the Games end, he said. Most residents live off corn farming, herding and selling supplies to hikers.
The planned investment is huge. For the Xiaohaituo area, the government will invest $163 million, including a 35-acre Olympic Village and hotels with 940 rooms.
In nearby Chongli, the investment is less — $95 million — because some facilities exist, such as the Genting Grand Secret Garden, a Malaysian-owned resort that is to host some of the Nordic events.
On the nearby slopes, skiers were excited about the prospect of hosting the Games.
"This will complete the other facilities and boost tourism," said Li Yun, a resident of Zhangjiakou who drove up for the day with his family. "The snow parks will become better and attract tourists from in and outside China."
All the snow parks in Chongli use artificial snow. During a visit in February, the ground next to the runs had no snow, and nearby hills were brown, except for an occasional dusting of snow in shaded areas.
Artificial or not, the new industries have brought relatively good-paying jobs to the area. Service personnel can earn about $500 a month, compared with the subsistence-level farming that existed before. Until the resorts began opening over the past decade, Chongli was officially designated an impoverished county.
The viability of this economy is open to debate. One of Chongli’s ski resorts, Duolemeidi, closed two years ago. Requests for interviews with the resort were rejected, but locals said rising water prices had made snow-making too expensive. The resort has recently reopened in hopes that Beijing wins the Games.
For those without jobs in the ski tourism industry, the prospects are daunting. Cheng, the farmer near the Yunzhou Reservoir, said agriculture was increasingly difficult because climate change had reduced rainfall.
Pumping water out of the ground is also harder, he said. Studies show that Beijing’s water table has been sinking up to 2 feet a year.
"This is the way it has always been," Cheng said. "The water goes to the city people."
And yet like almost everyone interviewed in this area, he thought it would be great if Beijing won the bid.
"Right now I’ve only seen skiing on television," he said. "But if we win, I’ll take a bus down to Chongli and see the snow myself."
Ian Johnson, New York Times