Beijing Water

Let’s save water – and move it too, deputy premier says

Kelly Haggart

May 30, 2002

Wen Jiabao has stressed the importance of water conservation in tackling the looming environmental crisis in parched north China, while also voicing support for the controversial south-north water-diversion scheme.

Deputy premier Wen Jiabao has stressed the importance of water conservation in tackling the looming environmental crisis in parched north China. But Mr. Wen, who is expected to succeed Zhu Rongji when the Chinese premier steps down next year, also voiced support for the controversial plan to siphon a huge volume of water from the Yangtze River and transfer it north to the arid Beijing-Tianjin region.

Mr. Wen, a geologist by training who is a member of the Communist Party’s powerful Political Bureau, called the south-north water-diversion scheme “a great undertaking of lasting importance.” He urged planners and engineers working on feasibility studies for the megaproject to conduct those with scientific rigour, so the scheme could be sustainable and accepted by future generations.

But he pointed out that alleviating the water shortage afflicting the north China plain must also involve becoming a “water-saving society,” and that preparation for the water-transfer project must include a series of studies focusing on water-conservation and pricing issues.

Mr. Wen’s remarks, reported by the Changjiang Daily (Changjiang Ribao) on May 13, were made during his visit earlier this month to the proposed start of the middle route of the water-diversion scheme. The plan calls for drawing water from the Yangtze River at three different points and moving it north along thousands of kilometres of new and refurbished aqueducts and canals.

Mr. Wen emphasized three key points with the proposed project: Environmental issues must be seen as a priority, so that the transfer of water benefits the north but does not harm the supplying regions; more attention must be paid to resettlement, particularly to restoring livelihoods; and water-saving strategies must be central to solving the water crisis, through the development of industries, agriculture, cities and a society based on conservation of the resource.

The middle route of the south-north project initially would take water from the Danjiangkou reservoir on the Han River, one of the largest Yangtze tributaries. Danjiangkou is about 800 km from the Three Gorges dam following the meandering course of the Yangtze and Han rivers, but the two reservoirs are just 200 km apart as the crow flies. Because the Danjiangkou reservoir is deemed too small to meet the needs of the thirsty north, the water-diversion project envisions eventually building a canal linking Danjiangkou to the much larger Three Gorges reservoir.

However, growing concern about pollution in the huge body of water that will eventually stretch more than 600 km behind the Three Gorges dam has called that plan into question. Indeed, the many daunting technical, environmental, social and financial problems that have surfaced during construction of the world’s biggest dam are clearly giving proponents of the south-north scheme pause as they contemplate embarking on another gargantuan project.

As the Hong Kong Sun newspaper (Taiyang bao) commented last month: “Many people – even scientists and water-resources experts – share the sense that at this point nobody can do anything about the Three Gorges except pray. The problems afflicting the Three Gorges dam will likely trigger a new round of debate over the south-north water diversion project.”

In November, Zhang Jiyao, deputy minister of water resources, told a Beijing press conference that work would begin early this year on the scheme. But although feasibility studies are under way and signs point to high-level support for the water-moving project, a final decision to proceed does not yet appear to have been taken. In March, a former minister of water resources, Yang Zhenhuai, called for the plan to be subject to debate by China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, before that decision is made.


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