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Water? I'll need to see some ID.


Chen Hao's not doing much to convince fans that her type-casting as a stuck-up pretty face is merely a coincidence. Speaking at a press conference anticipating the 1 November release of her new TV series Grand Dunhuang, Chen (Pink Ladies) confessed that during filming she had spring water airlifted in so that she could continue her beauty regimen.

Many scenes were filmed in the desert. The local water quality was especially poor, so washing my face was not comfortable at all. Eventually, I had someone ship spring water from Beijing by air. There were 20 cases of boxed water and 10 large jugs. Later, when they saw that I needed to go to the trouble of airlifting water, the investors had water shipped from Lanzhou.

A large jug of water reportedly was enough for two days worth of bathing; Chen also had a humidifier shipped in.

As we are reminded so often by the Chinese media, domestic per-capita water resources are significantly lower than the world average, so while individuals' use of water may not be especially frugal, egregious waste brings swift condemnation.

Water conservation has been in the news fairly frequently of late. The massive project to quench Beijing's thirst by diverting water from rivers in the south is still several years from completion, and other potential solutions, such as melting Tibetan glaciers or blasting passes through the Himalayas, have been dropped as unworkable. So what remains is a need to reduce the amount of water people use.

Zheng Yefu, professor of sociology at Peking University, wrote an opinion piece about wasting water while bathing as part of The Beijing News' series on the conservationist society:

The luxury of a daily bath

by Zheng Yefu

I often talk conservation with my friends, getting on to water conservation, and sometimes even showers. Li Peilin's bit was most impressive. He once stayed in the home of a Japanese person of considerable standing. In the evening, according to Japanese custom, he was invited bathe in a tub filled with hot water. When he had finished his bath, he drained the water, rinsed the tub clean, and exited. The man gasped: "Why did you let the water out?" This was because he was just about to use the water in the tub for his own bath. I believe it was Tan Shen who told me that when a Chinese girl was living in the home of an Australian, the master of the house sternly criticized her: we finish bathing in five to fifteen minutes, but for some reason you always need almost an hour - that uses tons of water! The girl telephoned her family and complained about the situation, saying that she was being mistreated. My story came from the US. While studying abroad during 1985-86 I stayed at the home of an American. Her daughter was a middle-school teacher and had studied in Germany. She told me that her German landlords had asked her more than once, why do you Americans shower once a day - is that necessary? At the time, very few Beijingers showered once a day, so I naturally sympathized with the Germans when I heard this.

But in the space of a few days for the rest of the world, China leapt a thousand years. Today, the majority of Beijingers (there's much I don't know about people from other parts, so I can't pass judgment) shower once a day. And people taking overly-long showers are probably not in the minority. What is most astounding is that this new habit has so swiftly taken hold in a metropolis scarce in water resources. Beijing's water prices have always been incredibly cheap. In the past, though income was low, it probably was possible to afford the cost of water for a shower a day; people hadn't caught rich person's disease of a shower a day because homes weren't equipped for bathing, and there was no room. Afterward, when there was both equipment and space, they quickly caught up with the world, no, with the US. I figure that the person who takes overlong showers is not obsessive-compulsive; he is not looking for cleanliness but rather is seeking pleasure out of the showering process. He does not think it at all costly because it truly is not costly; that water is cheap to the extreme.

Beijing lacks water. But the city's residents rarely find this news in the media and it goes in one ear and out the other. Only price will allow every individual to be aware of the true cost of this commodity. But price tells us over time that water in Beijing is a bargain. The price of water makes the calls in the media that "the wolf is coming" - that water is scarce - comical and ineffectual.

Our hundred-billion-yuan project to move water from the south to the north has begun. I'd like to say that if habits like "bathing for pleasure" continue, then water from the south will not be enough. Water is limited, but desire is boundless.

The ancients said, "Build camps and stockades on the mountains and near the rivers." For whatever reason, five dynasties of Chinese one after the other set up their largest "stockade" in a parched area. We must restrain this stockade; it cannot become a center for industry, for commerce, all because it lacks water. And at the same time we are pulling back, we must conserve water.

Conserving water is quite simple. There's no ten steps here - just one. All inhabitants and workers in Beijing and their families will be given one to two tons of water for free (the specific amount is open to debate); use of water beyond this amount will be charged at 100 yuan a ton. Check it out - Chinese wisdom on water conservation has arrived.

Zheng's argument is not entirely convincing, and many readers objected to his price and usage calculations. He later posted an update in his blog in which he ran some additional numbers in support of his conclusion.

A different sort of objection ran on the blog of a contributor to the XYS list:

From now on, water will also be subject to an ID system

by "I'm afraid of pinpricks"

At first glance this is a master stroke - how many 100 yuan's are there in the income of a normal household? But is this statement responsible? If this recommendation is effective and workable, then of course it is responsible. Putting aside for the moment whether it is effective, we'll only look at whether it can be implemented. "Every person can use a certain amount of free water every month" - this looks fairly socialist, but how much is reasonable? If the amount is high enough that no family need alter its water use habits then the total amout of water used will not change; that is, it won't achieve the goal of water conservation. Zheng believes that water conservation is a task of the entire populace, so only having a minority of individuals or households changing their water use habits is naturally not an option; however, if the majority of people feel that they do not have enough water, what then? Zheng's position is: "Check it out - Chinese wisdom on water conservation has arrived." I'm not so optimistic.

First let's look at household water use. If water distribution is apportioned according to the number of members in each household, the assumption is that each family has only one residence. But if they have two residences, how should the water division be calculated between them? Should they have to move from one house to another when their water is used up at the first? Or if they have several residences, do they get several times the water allotment, so that people with more money have less of a need for conservation?

Moving on to work units. If water at home is insufficient, "Chinese wisdom on water conservation has arrived." Zheng also believes that Chinese people are not as aware as foreigners, at least from the perspective of water conservation. But how far does that lack of awareness extend? Moving water from work to home, or holding that stuff in until it can be taken care of at work? May I ask who pays the water bill at government departments? If it is entirely taken care of by the treasury, then it isn't really fair, is it? Some water, at least, is consumed by the individual. Some institutions and family dormitories on the same campus; how can you be sure that family members don't go to the office to relieve themselves?

To this end, a "water use ID system" is imperative under the circumstances. Before using water at any location, an individual must first enter a username and password so that the amount of water used can be entered into that month's individual water-use account. However, one problem still remains - in some situations, water is used afterward, like using the toilet, for example. To prevent people from using water conservation as an excuse to not flush, China perhaps will change its habits to flush before using the facilities; that is, your stuff will wait for the next person to use the toilet. Of course, it may be unavoidable that some heroes may wait for three or five people to flush together. Will the water-saving toilets of the future be deeper than those of today?

Leaving the main topic for a moment - some people like to use those western elders to mess with Chinese people; if someone told me in 1996 that foreign countries were paradise, and the people who lived in paradise were all sophisticated people, I really would have believed it. Not many people went abroad then, information was unbalanced; I always felt that life in China wasn't comfortable and I envied those people who had returned from abroad. Third- or fourth-hand information that I heard all said that foreign countries were clean, the people were friendly, they all respected Chinese people, and so forth. It was all positive, and perhaps it was true at the time, since at any rate I had never been out of the country. But today, telling fables about foreigners to "educate Chinese people" is ignorant if not shameless.

Zheng Yefu's article uses things like "Japanese people bathe using water that foreigner guests have bathed in", "Australians finish bathing in five to fifteen minutes", and "Germans criticize Americans for bathing every day" to demonstrate the high moral character foreigners have toward water conservation. These appear to be convincing, and at least the first page of comments [on Zheng's blog] are convinced by Zheng. But I believe that behind any story is another story.

Looking at the Australian example, isn't that just a freakin' homestay? You can confuse the people who've never been out of the country, but who's not aware of this if they've been abroad? "Homestay" means taking an international student into your home. One characteristic of these families is that they are the sort of people who are low-income or even on the dole, mostly because they have little education and are lazy, so they can't find high-paying jobs. If they had money, which of them would let an unknown foreigner live at their home - would that be safe? A classmate of mine studied in New Zealand, and his homestay was afraid that he'd drink the milk, and so locked it up in the car - unbelievable. There's no need to talk about how foreigners see you - it's enough to look at the attitude with which Australia's Skynews reports on China.

I've never been to Japan, but the people I've seen probably don't think Chinese people are clean enough to bathe with them. Are Japanese people truly unafraid that they'll catch some sort of unclean disease from Chinese people through the water?

And Germans - the American said that to Zheng in 1986 - what year did the German say that to the American? Someone once said that China is 100 years behind America; should we use American hygiene standards of a century ago?

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There are currently 1 Comments for Water? I'll need to see some ID..

Comments on Water? I'll need to see some ID.

Although the commodification of water does raise ethical questions about the just and fair distribution of this vital ressource among a people with very variable incomes, "I'm afraid of pinpricks"'s demonstration is far from convincing (and let's just stick to its criticism of a water allowance system) when he imagines the particulars of such a system in practice.

The point of the matter is that it is very hard to limit the use of any resource without somekind of "punitive" incentive. Water and air, for that matter, are amongst the most used and polluted resources exactly because there is no cost (or no cost high enough to deter waste) related to their use, while the pervert effects and costs of their heavy-use and waste are redistributed to all.

While the idea of commodifying such resources can be scary in many ways, the user-pays system does deter waste and, at least, makes the heavy users pay (and perhaps push them towards innovative ways of saving the resource). One exemple of this is the Carbon market. It's not perfect, but it'll make the polluters pay.

Just how those measures should apply to the individuals sure is complex. But I believe the commodification of water can have a positive impact on saving the resource. And why not begin with the industry making heavy use of water first? From huge industrial cooling systems to bottled water company (who pay no or few royalties, at least in North America) to your local "xiyu", there's no shortage of waste...

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