BEIJING (Reuters) - China's capital started pumping "emergency" water from its long-parched neighboring province on Thursday, with officials speaking of a "grim" shortfall weeks after the Olympics when they said the city had enough water.
Hebei, which surrounds Beijing, will pump 300 million cubic meters of water to the capital from three dams which usually supply nearby farms, towns and cities, the province water office said on its website (www.hebwater.gov.cn).
Officials said the capital faced a serious shortfall but made no secret of the strains the transfer places on Hebei, which faces its own chronic water scarcity.
"Owing to continuous drought in recent years, the water situation in the capital Beijing is grim and water sources are quite strained," said a statement on the website, adding that the two government had reached an agreement on the supplies.
"This water is being transferred in circumstances when our province's water resources are extremely scarce and is an emergency transfer."
The water will flow through a 309-km (192-mile) canal quickly built for the Beijing Olympics that will later form part of the larger South-to-North Water Transfer Project.
During the Games in August, city officials said they did not need the "emergency" supplies that Hebei and nearby provinces set aside in case the "green" Games host city faced shortages.
"I believe the Olympic Games will not pose a big challenge to water supplies in the city," Water Ministry official Hu Siyi told reporters in mid-August.
But as north China approaches the dry winter season, officials said Beijing now needs the supplies. Hebei will pump the extra supplies for 174 days until March 2009, the provincial water office said.
"This transfer is all part of a plan," Lu Shengfang, a deputy director of the South-North Water Diversion Project, which is overseeing the transfer, told Reuters.
"With the unusually rainy wet season ending, we believe Hebei has enough water to supplement Beijing."
Beijing, with 16 million inhabitants, used 3.5 billion cubic meters of water in 2007, according to city statistics. Much of that comes from dams and underground reservoirs sourced in Hebei.
The capital's plans to pump the water during the Games met with grumbling from provincial officials, protests and complaints from Hebei farmers and criticism from environmental advocates, who said it encouraged waste.
Vice Minister of Water Resources Jiao Yong urged Hebei officials to avoid fresh tensions.
"Strengthen security and protection work for taking the water...do well in protecting stability," he told them, according to the province water office website.
Hebei ranks near the bottom of China's 31 provinces and province-status cities in water resources per head, with one eighth of the national average, according to province estimates.
Dai Qing, a Beijing environmental activist who has long criticized the city's water policies, said she was mystified by the sudden announcement.
"I'm puzzled why now, after they said they would need Hebei's water for the Olympics, and then said they wouldn't," she said. "The authorities said they had enough for the Olympics, but I think now that can't be believed."
Editing by Nick Macfie and Sanjeev Miglani