As the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing draws near, spare a thought for a Chinese peasant named Yan. He lives in the mountains about an hour's drive north of the main Olympic Green, not far from the Great Wall. His village, Shijiayao, is wasting away.

That's because authorities in Beijing, bent on fueling the capital's epic growth, have commandeered nearly every drop of water they can pump from the surrounding countryside. Deprived of government help to drill wells or dam springs, Shijiayao's 30 inhabitants - all that's left of a population of about 300 peasants two decades ago - have no water to farm their terraced fields. They subsist on a rain-dependent crop and on raising a few scrawny donkeys, which they sell for cash or slaughter for meat.

Shijiayao's main water source is a seep in a notch in the barren mountainside, which drips about a dozen bucketfuls a day - except in summer, when it dries up completely. No one bathes in Shijiayao. Next month, while visitors to Beijing amble along man-made lakes and fountains at the grand Olympic Green and Olympic Forest Park, Shijiayao residents will trek about 12 miles a day for drinking water. Li Feng Xian, the village's 91-year-old matriarch, pleads with us to tell Shijiayao's story and bring its inhabitants water. (View slideshow.)

Adding to these water woes: May's earthquake in south-central China that killed tens of thousands and injured about 250,000. The quake also sent engineers scurrying to inspect 400 dams across the nation, highlighting yet another risk of relying on distant water sources for a city the size of Beijing. What happens if the infrastructure fails?

Part of the problem is a decade-old drought that has sapped water supplies across northern China. But the main cause of Shijiayao's decline and the collapse of many other nearby villages goes back over a thousand years, to the demands of imperial Beijing - which is currently in a headlong rush to stoke economic growth in China's big cities. Even in wet years, peasants in the highlands north of the capital are no longer permitted to cultivate rice because growing the staple requires too much water. Instead, the runoff from their lands is captured for the Miyun Reservoir, Beijing's last repository of unpolluted surface water.

Now the Olympics are exacerbating China's water problems. To ensure enough potable water for an expected 1.5 million visitors in August, Beijing is tapping 80 billion gallons of so-called backup supply from four reservoirs in neighboring Hebei Province. Yet water levels in these reservoirs are already dangerously low. So to sustain the population boom on the semiarid Beijing plain, China's water planners are scrambling to build pipelines, canals, and water tunnels farther and farther into the hinterlands.

Worse, the water routed from Hebei to the Olympics site was supposed to shore up Lake Baiyangdian, an environmental jewel with its own drought problems. To feed the lake, China is pumping 40 billion gallons of water from the Yellow River in Shandong Province, 250 miles away. For every gallon from the Yellow River that arrives at the lake via the 1,400-year-old Grand Canal, nearly four gallons are lost along the way, according to the Dazhong Daily, a state newspaper in China.

Beijing itself is quietly sinking. With much of its surface water fouled by pollution - and a population that has exploded from 2 million in 1948 to 18 million today - the city relies on groundwater for most of its needs. But drought and overpumping are rapidly depleting the area's underground aquifer, causing sinkholes that have destroyed factories and homes. Subsidence is threatening sections of the Beijing-Shanghai railway line and parts of the city's international airport. "Subsidence security" is a major issue.

So it's easy to see why many Chinese environmentalists regard the splashy Olympic site in Beijing as a Potemkin village. The rowing and canoeing venue is on the Chaobei River, but the Chaobei hasn't flowed in nine years. To refill two miles of dry riverbed, organizers spent $57 million diverting 450 million gallons of water from the Wenyu River eight miles away. The Chaobei now boasts one of Asia's most potent fountains, its water jet thrusting 450 feet in the air.

Almost half of the Olympic events will take place at the Olympic Green, a symbol of China's pledge to throw a green Olympics. The 1,000 acres of wetlands, lawns, plazas, and stadiums are carved right into the concrete core of north-central Beijing. In 2004, as part of an effort to find an architecture firm for the Olympic Green and the adjoining Olympic Forest Park, China's Olympic organizers asked for bold ideas in urban ecology. Sasaki Associates of Boston won the contest with a blueprint for an aquatic landscape of rain-fed canals and lagoons designed to support wildlife in the urban park. Within months, though, the plan encountered problems. "We saw it all unravel before our eyes," says Mark Dawson, the project's leader.

Chinese officials were concerned that locals would hunt any animals or waterfowl reintroduced to the city, Dawson says. The officials opted instead for a shallower aquatic system - decorative, not ecological - fed by an existing canal just north of the site. The American designers knew that farmers and others depended on that canal for water and felt such a diversion would be counter to the spirit of the green Olympics that China had promised. In the end, the project was reassigned to several Chinese design institutes.

Beijing's water bank, in the surrounding Hebei Province, is broke. Among China's provinces, Hebei ranks near the bottom for available water resources in per capita terms, at just 12 percent of the national average. In southwest Hebei, an obelisk atop Xidayang Dam, a two-hour drive from Beijing on jammed country roads, bears slogans from Chairman Mao glorifying the "taming" of China's rivers. Built in 1958 by 84,000 workers, the dam created a reservoir that flooded 1,700 square miles, as well as the homes of 29,000 people. The reservoir supplies water to Baoding, a city of 11 million; next month, somehow, it will also supply the Olympics. Yet since 1996, its water level has steadily retreated; it's now at less than 30 percent of its capacity. The drought has left the dam and a pair of pipeline-control stations looming 10 stories above the reservoir.

Downstream, in Wangdu County, villagers have turned a dried-up, tree-lined canal into a garbage dump. A pipeline from Xidayang now bypasses the villages, carrying water destined for Beijing via a new cement-lined channel that workers are rushing to complete for the Games. In Yan's village of Shijiayao, summer rains cascade down the denuded mountainside, flooding paddy terraces and the access road. But with no storage facilities, the village can't save the runoff. Yan says his people have but one hope: that the sprawling capital will grow to engulf them and thus permit them to tap their own water supplies.