In Hebei's Tiantaishan village, kids used to skate on frozen ponds in winter. But now, the ponds hardly have any water in them.
Thirty years of excessive groundwater pumping has created China's biggest cone-shaped underground depression in Hebei.
Wuqiang county's Water Conservancy Bureau Chief Zhang Jianguo told First Financial Daily that the county's agriculture has been relying almost entirely on groundwater since the 1990s, as there are few rivers in the province.
Since the 80s, a total of 150 billion cubic meters (nearly 5 trillion cubic feet) of groundwater has been withdrawn, covering an area of 67,000 square meters (721,181 square feet), one third of the national total.
"The aquifer level has been sinking by 0.8 to 1.2 meters (about 3.9 feet) each year," Zhang said. "The water now stands at 90 meters underground, down from 70 meters in the past."
Sinking groundwater raises irrigation costs, as it's harder and harder to get water.
"If things don't change, there won't be any groundwater in 40 or 50 years," Zhang said.
Earth fissures are another glaring problem.
The first earth fissures took place in the 60s. Over a decade ago, severe fissures appeared near the ponds so abruptly that villagers were shocked. In 2006, 482 cracks were found in nearly 70 counties and cities, damaging factories, schools, residences and roads.
Over 70 percent of Hebei's groundwater goes to farming. And with small farmlands scattered around, promoting the use of more advanced irrigation methods such as sprinkling and drip irrigation has proven difficult.
More importantly, groundwater irrigation is cheaper. Water conservancy official Liu Yang said most farmers don't care about long-term issues such as environmental protection.
"They just want the cheapest irrigation method," Liu said, "which is using underground water."
A lack of regulation and enforcement makes things worse. Anyone can drill a well as long as they register at the Water Conservancy Bureau, Liu said.
Vice Premier Wang Yang visited Hebei county on April 8 and stressed the importance of dealing with excessive pumping.
Governor Zhang Qingwei said Hebei has been trying to adjust its crop structure by growing less winter wheat, which requires huge amounts of water, and planting more corn, cotton and feed crops.
Hebei is also adjusting its industrial structure to preserve water in the urbanization process.
According to a blue paper on Hebei's economic development, in 2013, the province's urbanization rate was only 48 percent, below the national average of 53.73 percent, and well below Beijing's 86.3 percent.
Liu Yang said Hebei would strictly control the entering of factories that consume lots of water and cause severe pollution.
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