High cost, impact on environment and lives among key concerns
DANJIANGKOU (Hubei): North China is dying.
A chronic drought is ravaging farmland. The Gobi Desert is inching south. The Yellow River, the so-called birthplace of Chinese civilisation, is so polluted it can no longer supply drinking water. The rapid growth of megacities - 22 million people in Beijing and 12 million in Tianjin alone - has drained underground aquifers that took millennia to fill.
Not atypically, the Chinese government has a grand and expensive solution: Divert at least 23 billion cu m of water each year hundreds of kilo-metres from the other great Chinese river, the Yangtze, to slake the thirst of the north China plain and its 440 million people.
The engineering feat, called the South-North Water Diversion Project, is China's most ambitious attempt to subjugate nature. It would be like channelling water from the Mississippi River to meet the drinking needs of Boston, New York and Washington.
Its US$62 billion (S$77 billion) price tag is twice that of the Three Gorges Dam. And like that project, which Chinese officials last month admitted has 'urgent problems', the water diversion scheme is increasingly mired in concerns about its cost, its environmental impact and the sacrifices poor people in the provinces are told to make for those in richer cities.
Three artificial channels from the Yangtze would transport precious water from the south, which itself is increasingly afflicted by droughts - the region is suffering its worst one in half a century.
The project's human cost is staggering - along the central route, which starts in Hubei province at a gigantic reservoir and snakes 1,300km to Beijing, about 350,000 villagers are being relocated to make way for the canal. Many are being resettled far from their homes and given low-grade farmland. In Hubei, thousands of people have been moved to the grounds of a former prison.
Some Chinese scientists say the diversion could destroy the ecology of the southern rivers. The government has neglected to do proper impact studies, they say.
More than 14 million people in Hubei will be affected if the project damages the Han River, the tributary of the Yangtze where the central route starts, said Dr Du Yun, a geographer at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan, the provincial capital.
Officials in provinces south of Beijing and Tianjin have privately raised objections and are haggling over water pricing and compensation.
Overseers of the eastern route, which is being built beside an ancient waterway for barges called the Grand Canal, have found that the drinking water to be brought to Tianjin from the Yangtze is so polluted that 426 sewage treatment plants have to be built. Water pollution control on the route takes up 44 per cent of the US$5 billion investment, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
The source water from the Han River on the central route is cleaner, but the main channel will cross 205 rivers and streams in the industrial heartland of China before reaching Beijing.
'When water comes to Beijing, there's the danger of the water not being safe to drink,' said environment advocate Dai Qing, who has written critically about the Three Gorges Dam.
Former environmental management official Wang Jian agreed that the project carries huge risks, but said there were no other options given the severity of the current water shortage.
The eastern route is expected to be operational by 2013, while the central route is to start major operations the following year. The lines were originally supposed to open by the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, but have been hobbled by myriad problems.
The diversion project was first studied in the 1950s but the government did not look at the project seriously again until the 1990s, when north China was hit hard by droughts. In 2002, the State Council gave the green light for work to start on the central and eastern routes.
The western route, which would run at an average altitude of 3,000m to 4,000m across the Tibetan plateau to help irrigate the Yellow River basin, has been deemed too difficult to start for now.
Officials in Tianjin are so sceptical of the eastern route's ability to deliver drinkable water that they are looking at desalination as an alternative.
Planners have more hope for the central route, though the engineering is a much greater challenge - the canal has to be built from scratch, with 1,774 structures along its length to channel the water, since there is no pre-existing waterway like the Grand Canal to follow.
At the start of the route, the water level of the Danjiangkou Reservoir on the Han River has been raised 13m to 170m so the water can flow downhill to Beijing. The government said the rising waters and a need to combat soil erosion required moving 130,000 farmers last year from around the reservoir. Similar relocations are taking place all along the main channel, which runs through four provinces.
Forced relocations, though, could pale next to larger fallouts from the project. 'We feel we are still unsure how the project is going to impact on the environment, ecologies, economies and society at large,' said Dr Du, the geographer in Wuhan, who carefully added that he was not outrightly opposed to the project.
In a paper published in the Bulletin of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Dr Du and two co-authors estimated that the diversion project would reduce the flow of the middle and lower stretches of the Han significantly.
The demands of the north will not abate. Migration from rural areas means Beijing's population is growing by one million every two years, according to an estimate in an essay in China Daily, written last October by population development scholar Hou Dongmin.
'With its dwindling water resources, Beijing cannot sustain a larger population,' he said. 'Instead, it should make serious efforts to control the population, if not reduce it.'
Beijing has about 100 cu m of water available per person. According to a standard adopted by the United Nations, that is just a fraction of the 1,000 cu m per person that indicates chronic water scarcity.
Planning Beijing's growth by the State Council up to 2020 already assumes the water diversion will work, rather than planning growth with much less water, said Mr Wang, the former official.
'Instead of transferring water to meet the growing demand of a city, we should decide the size of a city according to how much water resources it has,' he said. 'People's desire for development has no end.'
NEW YORK TIMES
Jun 18, 2011
Water transfer project no cure-all for waste
By Ho Ai Li
I WAS in Hubei talking to farmers who had to make way for a plan to pipe water from central Hubei to northern cities such as Beijing.
A neatly dressed man who said he was an official approached me and asked to see my press card. Another official was on his way and wanted to 'have a meal' with me, I was told, as he copied down my details. Never mind that it was 3pm and too hot to eat.
The man left. The villagers asked me to do the same. 'Get out before they stop you,' warned one of them.
Later, I was told villagers elsewhere had clammed up in front of reporters; others answered reporters' questions nervously in the presence of officials.
Their fear is understandable.
For the plan, called Nanshui Beidiao, or North-South Water Diversion, has come under even more scrutiny, what with severe droughts draining Hubei, the province of a thousand lakes.
A rare admission by Beijing last month that the Three Gorges Dam has led to serious problems has also raised doubts about the transfer, dwarfed only in scale by the dam.
On May 18, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao chaired a State Council meeting to look into 'urgent' environmental problems caused by the building of the dam, the world's largest hydroelectric project.
Underlining the severity of the problems, the State Council has set aside 100 billion yuan (S$19 billion) - about two-fifths the cost of the 254 billion yuan spent to build the dam - to repair the damage. Among other things, the Three Gorges project has left surrounding river banks more prone to landslides and earthquakes. It has also displaced at least 1.2 million people.
Much of the money will be used to compensate the people whose lives were disrupted by the move. Corrupt officials siphoned off some money meant for them. A state probe found that 12 per cent of the resettlement budget was pocketed by officials in 1999.
The worry is whether farmers living around the Danjiangkou Reservoir, one of Asia's largest and the source of water to be sent to Beijing, will encounter the same problems. One resettled farmer told me he was unhappy with the quality of his new dwellings and suspected that it was made of materials cheaper than promised. He and other farmers also wonder whether the water transfer project will cause similar environmental problems as the dam.
Projected to cost US$62 billion (S$76 billion), twice as much as the Three Gorges Dam, the water transfer is the largest water diversion project in the world. When ready by 2050, the water routes will span 4,350km - the approximate distance between Singapore and Beijing.
Under the plan, water will be piped from the south to the north via three routes - eastern, central and western. Water will be pumped into cities such as Beijing and Tianjin, and also north-western parts like Gansu and Inner Mongolia. Transferring water to these arid areas will boost industries, proponents of the plan say. Its supporters included Chairman Mao Zedong himself, who famously declared back in 1952: 'The south has a lot of water, the north little. If possible, it's fine to lend a little water.'
But what was the case in Mao's days nearly six decades ago might be changing.
Climate change has made rainfall unpredictable, noted Mr Peter Bosshard, policy director of California-based environmental group International Rivers. He said: 'Already, people and the eco-system in the lower Yangtze basin are crying out for water. How can you withdraw so much water to send to Beijing?'
Indeed, the south is getting drier - total freshwater reserves in the Yangtze went down to 172 billion cubic metres in 2009, a drop of 17 per cent from 2005.
Problems with pollution have also surfaced. Water pumped via the eastern canal from Yangzhou to Tianjin is expected to be so costly and polluted that the Tianjin authorities are looking at the desalination of seawater as an alternative instead.
Enormous infrastructure projects such as the water diversion scheme reflect the top Chinese leaders' penchant for engineering solutions, said Mr Bosshard, noting that many of them are trained engineers.
Indeed, China has traditionally sought ways to increase the supply of water rather than to manage demand.
Such massive solutions obscure the need for smaller efforts to change individuals' behaviour. Some city dwellers have little sense of the sacrifices made by their poorer cousins in the countryside just so that they don't have to fret about water.
A Chinese reporter recounted a meeting with a Beijing woman who threw away a half-drunk bottle of mineral water, saying it was too heavy to carry and would ruin the shape of her handbag. She said there was no need to worry about the capital running out of water - the North-South Water Diversion will come to its rescue. That is typical of the blind faith that many city dwellers in Beijing have in the water transfer to quench their thirst.
But, in fact, they are already living on borrowed water. The city drains the resource from nearby provinces like Hebei, as well as from beneath the ground.
In a country known for social campaigns, little has been done to drive home the message that water is precious. Nor is the operation of snow parks, spas and golf courses - which use a lot of water for leisure purposes - curtailed in the capital.
The water diversion project is seen to be a lifeline supplying Beijing with one billion cubic metres of water a year, almost a third of the amount it used up in 2009. But it is no cure-all that allows city folk to fritter away water with abandon. Unless a mindset change is engineered among people, no amount of water siphoned from the south will be able to quench their thirst for more.