Danjiangkou Reservoir: A tale of two watersheds

Brady Yauch
Probe International
June 16, 2010

In the ultimate photo-op this week, Danjiangkou Mayor Zeng Wenhua, with press in tow, ladled a cup of water out of his city’s reservoir and drank it “without hesitation” to demonstrate its purity. The Danjiangkou Reservoir—on the Hanjiang River, a branch of the middle reaches of the Yangtze River—is slated to provide Beijing with water by 2014, once the central channel of the South-North Water Diversion scheme is completed.

But many citizens are concerned about the water’s potability. The photo-op was meant to dispel those fears and show that it is fit for human consumption.

Ironically, the mayor’s message—that a watershed rehabilitation program to clean up the Danjiangkou Reservoir before its waters are shipped to the water-starved north—is one that Beijing should heed in order to restore its own watershed and reduce the need to divert water from distant regions in the south of the country.

Though unnecessarily heavy-handed and dogged by corruption, the efforts to clean up the Danjiangkou appear to have improved water quality. Starting in 2005, the local government rejected 388 industry applications for polluting plants, shut 130 polluting factories and built two sewage works in 2009. And another two are under construction.

Local officials have also pursued an aggressive policy of reforestation and soil conservation—with more than 180,000 hectares afforested in the past decade and 60,000 hectares treated with soil and water conservation programs. Reducing industrial and agricultural pollutants has been a priority, said Mayor Zeng, and the city strove to ensure their water reached the country’s top water quality standard.

If Danjiangkou’s environmental rehabilitation efforts prove to be longstanding, they demonstrate the potential for Beijing to rehabilitate its own watershed. Beijing has, for 60 years, deforested its watershed and polluted its surface waters. Now the city’s residents are forced to survive on its diminishing groundwater and deep aquifers reserves.

Beijing residents today consume 1/30th of the world’s per capita water consumption. This crisis has led China’s leaders to adopt costly and socially-disruptive long-distance water diversion projects—like the South-North Water Diversion project—to meet Beijing’s water needs.

China’s economy and its citizens would be better off without the diversion of water from further and further jurisdictions, like Danjiangkou.

In Danjiangkou City, more than 100,000 people are being pushed off of their land, to make way for the project. After being relocated, many migrants have talked about the hardships they now face, as, very often, their traditional livelihoods—such as farming—are no longer practical in their new surroundings.

Other migrants report they have yet to receive compensation from local officials while some of those relocated say officials forced them to sign relocation agreements. They also said officials were offering to compensate them with less than half the land they currently use.

Just the central leg of the massive water transfer scheme will force 330,000 citizens in central China’s Hubei and Henan provinces to relocate.

The diversion project is also plagued by high costs. Current estimates say it will cost an estimated $62 billion, making it three times as expensive as official cost estimates for the Three Gorges Dam. When completed, the three legs of the project will be three times longer than the railway to Tibet and channel more water than the Thames.

Because of its size and complexity, the cost of the project is expected to escalate as an endless number of band-aid projects become necessary to fix unforeseen problems. According to Tian Lei, writing in the South Wind Window, the cost of building the south-north water transfer project has already doubled, thanks to central government policy changes, commodity price hikes, investment restructuring, and demands for higher compensation by those who are being forced to move.

Further Reading from Probe International about the South-North Water Diversion scheme:

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