Weeks before the world’s best skiers and snowboarders descend on Zhangjiakou, the main site of the Beijing Winter Olympics, a dozen machines are furiously churning out snow to blanket the mountains they will race down.
The slopes were soon blanketed in white, and the guns did not stop there. A deafening sound continued for hours as they covered the rest of the gray landscape to complete a perfect snowy backdrop that could be broadcast around the world. The water droplets they sprayed into the air hovered like white smoke over the room as freezing temperatures and chemicals helped turn them to ice.
Artificial snow has become a staple of the Winter Olympics as climate change reduces the number of countries that receive enough natural snow to stage the event. But Beijing will be the first host to rely entirely on artificial powder. The upcoming Olympics will also be the culmination of a six-year effort to transform Zhangjiakou into China’s version of the Alps, creating a high-end winter vacation destination in hopes of lifting an agricultural region out of poverty.
Experts fear the drive to transform Zhangjiakou could exacerbate the region’s severe water shortage, which ranks among the worst in the country. More than half of Zhangjiakou is “highly water-stressed”, according to China Water Risk, a Hong Kong-based environmental group, and the local water resource per capita is less than a fifth of China’s national average.
“There are bound to be impacts in an area where there is almost no water in winter,” said Carmen de Jong, a geographer at the University of Strasbourg. “For six months, during the snow sports season, the water stays away from the natural ecosystem.” There is also the risk that fake snow will be harmful to the environment when it melts.
China could need 2 million cubic meters of water – enough to fill 800 Olympic swimming pools – to create enough fake snow to cover ski slopes and access roads during the Games, according to de Jong.
There are certain advantages to manufactured snow, which is more firmly packed and creates smoother and more desirable slopes. But the amount of artificial snow has reached unprecedented levels in recent years. About 80% of the snow at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia was made. When South Korea welcomed Pyeongchang four years later, that share rose to 90%.
Part of the problem this time around is that the arid Beijing-Zhangjiakou region isn’t ideal for making snow. Over the past four decades, average winter precipitation has been just 7.9 millimeters. The ski resort of Davos in Switzerland receives nine times that amount in a typical December. Greenpeace estimates that temperatures in Beijing could rise by up to 2.4 degrees Celsius on average as the planet heats up. A warmer climate has already shortened the region’s winters by more than 10 days compared to the 1970s.
In Zhangjiakou, the dry weather means that a significant amount of water tends to be lost due to evaporation and strong winds during the snowmaking process. Engineers must also pump water into the dry ground to freeze the ground before fake snow can be added on top.
That hasn’t stopped China from investing heavily in Zhangjiakou’s tourism industry since Beijing won its bid for the Winter Olympics in 2015. Today, it has seven bustling ski resorts and the city welcomes 3 million skiers a year. A rapid train opened in 2019 only takes 50 minutes from Beijing, allowing for quick journeys on weekends. According to the National Sports Administration, China has already achieved its goal of involving 300 million people in snow and ice sports. He also built 650 skating centers and 800 ski resorts nationwide.
One of Zhangjiakou’s most popular ski resorts, Thaiwoo, is in a booming snowy town lined with upscale shops selling ski gear and pricey hotels and restaurants. The government says the Games are a watershed moment, with investment in infrastructure and jobs linked to winter sports lifting more than 430,000 local residents out of poverty.
Still, officials are aware of the strain the Olympics are putting on Zhangjiakou’s water supply. Zhao Weidong, spokesperson for the Beijing Winter Olympics, said nearly 10 percent of the water consumed in Chongli, a district of Zhangjiakou, will be used to make snow.
To alleviate this pressure and reduce groundwater extraction, China has built 11 water reservoirs near the sites to collect 530,000 cubic meters of water from surface runoff, rainfall and melted snow. Water from a reservoir in Yunzhou, a city two hours away, will also be brought in, according to Zhao.
Experts warn that the approach would further disrupt the region’s natural water cycle. The International Olympic Committee has even flagged the issue as one of its top concerns when considering China’s bid to host. Beijing “underestimated the amount of water that would be needed for snowmaking,” noted an IOC assessment report published in 2015, and “overestimated the ability to recover water used for snowmaking.” snow”.
Water is not the only environmental concern. Making snow on such a large scale is an energy-intensive process that can sometimes spew out tons of planet-warming gases. That appears to be a low risk, however, since all the snow cannons used for the Games are powered by nearby wind farms, according to Jia Maoting, the head of Aoti Construction Development Ltd., which built some venues.
Outside the Chongli ski resorts are endless miles of brown hills known as a poverty belt around the capital. Even with its dry climate, the Zhangjiakou region has long been used as a major water resource for Beijing, which also suffers from shortages. With few factories, the main economic activities revolved around agriculture and animal husbandry until the push to develop winter sports tourism.
There should be a balance between natural protection and development, said Zhang Junfeng, the founder of Le Shui Xing, a Chinese nongovernmental organization that focuses on river protection and equal access to water. . “It’s not all bad,” he said. “The water wouldn’t have been used by locals anyway,” he added, as much of it is used to meet Beijing’s needs. “At least now some of the water remains and contributes to local development.”
Despite the promises of prosperity the ski resorts would bring, some local residents found only incremental improvements to their daily lives. Chen Jianyong, a 60-year-old farmer, has a second job as a cleaner in Thaiwoo. He says he’s glad resorts hire locals like him during the cold months when they can’t farm.
But not everyone is happy with the changes. Ren, 54, was forced to move after his village was demolished to make way for luxury hotels. Development has destroyed forests and degraded soil in the area, said Ren, who gave only his surname. He earns 2,750 yuan ($430) a month cleaning ice on the street; the work was part of the deal he made with the developer who took his land.
“It’s good that we now have places to work,” said Ren, who now earns less than before as a farmer. “It pays too little.”
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