MACHANGXIANG, CHINA — AS the summer sun bakes the surrounding arid mountains, villagers here pace their days according to the arrival of the water truck.
Four times daily, a tanker full of water rumbles into this village of 2,000 people in the Beijing metropolitan area and dispenses two buckets for each household. Washing, watering, and cooking then resume until supplies run out, and the wait for the next water truck begins.
``If we take more than two buckets, other people won't get any,'' says Zhao Chun, who says villagers sometimes take donkeys to fetch water from the river over 10 miles away. More than 100,000 residents in the vicinity of Beijing face a daily scramble for water as China faces the most-severe drought of this century.
A rain shortfall of 60 percent to 90 percent is affecting the cities of Beijing and Tianjin and the provinces of Hebei, Shanxi, Shannxi, Gansu, and Shandong, and threatens the summer wheat harvest, according to officials.
Almost halfway through the rainy season, many areas have seen hardly a drop: Annual rainfall, which averages 24 inches, has plummeted to almost nothing since the beginning of the year.
The water shortage is dissipating reserves in Beijing's two major reservoirs, which are now at three quarters of their average level in the 1980s, and has reduced ground water in the city by more than one meter, according to Chinese press reports.
``The capital city is rapidly reaching water scarcity.... The reserve of water will be used up in the next few years,'' says a Beijing water official, Teng Shutang, in the China Daily newspaper. ``Beijing would be at a standstill.''
The water crisis, which has also hit Guangdong, Sichuan, and other parts of southern China with the worst drought in 25 years, has brought emergency conservation measures and could trigger rationing in many cities before the end of the summer, officials have announced.
``They are grappling with major problems in centers with large and expanding populations and tight water supplies, like Beijing,'' says Daniel Beard, commissioner of the US Bureau of Reclamation, who visited Beijing and likens the problems in northern China to those of the American Southwest.
Water shortages will likely worsen. According to the New China News Agency, northern China's current shortage of more than 10 billion cubic meters a year (350 billion cubic feet) will grow to 40 billion cubic meters in 25 years.
Although for years water conservancy was geared to farming in this largely agricultural nation, economic reforms have refocused attention on the needs of industry and cities in sustaining rapid growth.
More than half of China's 570 cities are deficient in water, especially in the north, which has more than half of the country's cultivated land but only about 15 percent of the water.
Needs are also acute for 80 million farmers struggling to find water for their families, cattle, and crops. Last month, authorities warned northern farmers grappling with drought that the usual heavy rains in July could be more severe and create more serious flooding. Fearing that losses from floods could deepen simmering rural discontent, officials have called on local governments to improve inadequate flood-control measures.
BUT Western observers say to survive its water crisis, China will have to undergo radical reform in managing its water resources. Cities are caught in a vicious cycle of shortages and waste encouraged by the traditionally low price of water.
People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, estimates that China will have to invest more than $20 billion in water conservancy by the turn of the century. But in Beijing, residents pay only four cents per metric ton of tap water, while the cost of supply to the city is more than double that.
The China Daily reported that leaky toilets are major culprits in water loss, causing the trickling away of 200 million cubic meters of water every year. Officials are urging the use of commodes made by only 10 Chinese companies and has appointed a committee on toilet leakage.
Chinese industries also have long been water spendthrifts, reutilizing only 50 percent of the water and using 10 times as much water to produce a ton of steel as in developed countries.
Agriculture is the least efficient water user. Farm irrigation accounts for 80 percent of China's total consumption, but huge losses result from backward methods of irrigation and leaks in canals. In some areas, officials are urging the use of water-saving spray irrigation systems.
The government says that diverting resources from the water-rich south to the arid north is the only long-term solution. Officials hope to build a $5 billion, 800-mile-long channel from the Yangtze River in the south to alleviate shortages in Beijing, Tianjin, and other key industrial centers. The project could channel more than 14 billion cubic meters of water annually. But officials are still arguing over the route, and experts say it would drain China's financial resources.
The US Bureau of Reclamation plans to send a team of experts to discuss possible technical assistance in the project, although Mr. Beard says it is unclear if the Chinese plan is feasible. ``The most difficult thing one can do in the water-resources field is interbasin transfers. It is politically charged and, if it can encounter problems, it will.... No interbasin transfer in the last 20 years has been accomplished easily,'' he says.