Even Fake Snow Can't Disguise Real Problems in China

Mar 02, 2004

This op-ed, written by Timothy Hildebrandt, appeared in the March 2, 2004 issue of The Chicago Tribune. It is reprinted here with permission.

What began as a cottage industry of knock-off North Face parkas has exploded into a wildly successful market for counterfeit high-end outerwear in China. In major cities, enterprising shopkeepers hawk pirated ski jackets with brand names like Helly Hansen and Columbia. Visit any Beijing clothing market and the uninitiated might reasonably assume that China is home to a robust ski industry.

However, China's first ski resort is barely a decade old. And while the number of resorts is on the rise--nearly 20 opened in the past three years--the market for ski apparel outstrips the sport's popularity.

Nonetheless, Chinese ski resort operators believe that the low cost of equipment, including counterfeit clothing, is actually helping drive interest in the sport. The fledgling industry will also be built on the backs of another imposter: manmade snow.

Criticism of the pirated apparel industry is rampant in the international business community and, increasingly, receives the attention of Chinese government officials. But aside from expert skiers who find it a poor substitute for natural powder, the drawbacks of manmade snow are virtually ignored.

Ski resorts all over the world depend on the snow machine to guarantee their customers consistently skiable terrain. Certainly resorts in China, where an estimated half of the snow pack is composed of manmade snow, would be hard pressed without it. But heavy reliance on manmade snow comes at a high cost--snowmaking wastes tremendous amounts of water.

Snow machines require 300,000 gallons of water annually to cover less than one acre. Chinese ski resorts produce on average 24 inches of manmade snow per year. To provide enough snow pack for one of China's larger resorts--a relatively small 90 acres of skiable terrain--27 million gallons are used throughout the year, which is enough water to fulfill the basic needs of 5,700 people.

What is worse, much of the water used for manmade snow does not return to the watershed, but disappears completely. In some areas of the United States, for example, nearly a quarter of water used for snowmaking is lost to evaporation, while additional snow melts into runoff, compounding the amount of wasted water.

Chinese ski resorts do not necessarily waste more water than those in other countries. It is not that resorts are employing outdated, inefficient technology, but rather inappropriately using a resource that is already in short supply. China is in the midst of a major water crisis.

Nowhere in China is the problem of water scarcity worse than in the north. And yet, current and future ski resort development is centered in this parched region. Northeastern cities near Beijing are both cold enough and close enough to wealthy urban centers to make ski resorts economically viable.

The ski industry's water needs are only expected to escalate in coming years. Analysts note that China is one of the only countries that actually boasts an increased number of ski resorts. The number of Chinese skiers doubled to 4 million last year alone, and the trend is expected to continue.

The future of skiing in China might very well lie indoors. All-season ski facilities in Beijing and Shanghai are in the works. Certainly, these venues are much smaller than outdoor ski slopes: the Shanghai slope will measure just 7.5 acres.

And while indoor facilities are temperature controlled, losing less snow to melting, they still demand significant amounts of water. With no natural snow to form a base, indoor slopes rely completely on manmade snow. Operating year round, their total water needs might match those of larger outdoor resorts operating for short four-month seasons.

Certainly ski resorts are not the primary culprits in China's water scarcity crisis. Skiing is not nearly as popular as golf; each course consumes three times more water than one ski resort. But continued expansion of ski resorts and the inevitable reliance on manmade snow will make a bad situation worse.

Ridding China of counterfeit ski apparel would certainly please multinational clothing companies concerned with intellectual property rights; stopping the tidal wave of water-wasting ski resorts would not only give environmentalists a lift, but also slake the thirst of northeastern China's citizens.

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