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A green gift to smog-choked Beijing

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Oasis of respite: The Olympic Forest Park will present a green legacy.
Oasis of respite: The Olympic Forest Park will present a green legacy.

Pallavi Aiyar

Beijing’s notoriously smog-choked environs are soon to be gifted an oasis of respite, courtesy of the Olympic Games. The largest public green space in the country, a 680-hectare Olympic Forest Park will soon open its oxygen-laden doors to the public.

The park is being billed by the authorities as a green lung for what is one of the world’s most polluted cities. Built at the cost of 7.7 billion yuan ($1.12b) over a three-year period, the Forest Park is located at the northern end of the south-north axis around which the Olympic village is constructed.

Stunning views of the iconic iron mesh-wrought Bird’s Nest stadium are to be had from atop a hill at the park’s centre. Five hundred thousand plants representing 180 different types of flora dot the space.

But the most striking feature of this urban forest is a 27-hectare, man-made lake. This is also the feature that has proved to be the most controversial, leading to a fierce debate over the wisdom, or lack thereof, in constructing such a massive, ornamental lake in a city that is on the verge of a water crisis.

Having suffered eight straight years of drought, Beijing’s natural water supplies are severely depleted; a crisis that is exacerbated by pollution. Already struggling to meet the needs of its 17 million inhabitants the Olympics will likely place an even greater burden on the city’s water supplies. An extra 1.5 million visitors are expected during the games and water use could surge by up to 30 per cent according to some estimates.

The situation will likely be aggravated by the fact that in a bid to show its best face to the world the municipal government has built a number of water-guzzling musical fountains and created lush green lawns to line the main boulevards of the capital city. Forty million potted plants are also being placed all over Beijing as part of an Olympics-related beautification project. To ensure enough potable water for the games’ period Beijing is tapping 800 billion gallons of back-up supply from four reservoirs in neighbouring Hebei province. As a result, although Hebei is one of the least water-abundant provinces in China, peasants there find themselves helpless as precious water for their crops is diverted to serve the capital’s explosive developmental needs.

Pipelines to pump water from further south (part of the country’s ambitious 500 billion yuan, North-South water diversion project which seeks to channel water up from the Yangtze River in the south to the parched north) are also being put in place.

At a recent press conference deputy director of the Beijing Water Authority Bi Xiaogang insisted that even during the Olympics, water would only be diverted from other parts of the country in an emergency. While admitting that the capital’s reliance on shrinking groundwater reserves was not ideal — three-quarters of Beijing’s water now comes from underground wells up to 1000 metres deep — he added that heavier than average rains this year may help generate adequate supplies without resorting to piping in water from Hebei.

Addressing the issue of the Olympic Forest in particular, Mr. Bi stressed that all the water used for irrigating the park as well as in the toilets, will come from recycled sources. Rainwater harvesting facilities have been set up to enable the storage and re-use of up to 70 per cent of rainfall. Moreover, the trees planted in the park are of indigenous varieties and most are drought-resistant.

Although the Olympic Forest will consume a daily water supply of 280,000 cubic metres, the water authority official thus claimed the project was environmentally sustainable.

The park is also expected to act as a barrier against the sandstorms that plague the Chinese capital every spring, the result of the large-scale desertification that is creeping across the country’s dry northern regions. In 2006 for example, a particularly virulent sand storm led to over 300,000 tonnes of dust and sand deposited in Beijing on a single night in April.

Tang Tong, the Olympic Forest’s deputy general manager said that the park was intended to “help develop a sustainable ecology and combat desertification and soil erosion.”

The Beijing Olympics are being promoted as the Green Olympics and the pledge to clean up its environment was a major consideration in the decision to award China the games. Beijing has in fact invested some $12 billion in environmental projects since winning the bid in 2001, and last year a United Nations Environment Programme report concluded that the city had made “significant strides” in improving its environment.

Ultimately, the balance sheet of the Olympics for the capital’s environment may remain open to debate. But the Olympic Forest Park at least will present a green legacy with a long-term impact. The park which will cost an estimated 100 million yuan ($14.2 million) a year to maintain, will also absorb some 7,200 tonnes of carbon dioxide and 32 tonnes of sulphur dioxide, while releasing 5,400 tonnes of oxygen annually.

The forest will be open during the Olympics for 12 hours every day but only athletes and others games personnel will have access to begin with. The park will then open to the general Chinese public early next year.

In China, the lingering remnants of the collective culture of communism find their most visible expression in parks. Every morning and evening the capital city’s green spaces are abuzz with people of all ages exercising, taking their caged song birds for a walk or simply catching up on gossip with friends.

By plugging into this park-culture, the Olympic Forest is in fact likely to be one of the more successful attempts to make the Olympics meaningful for the 2008 host city, long after the games themselves become part of history.


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