March 12, 2006
China’s government is favouring a water diversion plan once championed by Chairman Mao to help alleviate northern China’s water crisis. But, says Probe International’s Dai Qing, it doesn’t matter to the government whether it works or not.
With much of northern China fast running out of water, the government is favouring a plan championed by Chairman Mao half a century ago. Water would be diverted to the north from the Yangtze River basin hundreds of kilometres to the south. Chinese officials say work on what would be one of the world’s biggest water diversion schemes is likely to start next year. But quite apart from being colossally expensive, the project may well do more harm than good. Beijing gets most of its drinking water from a single reservoir which these days, thanks to successive droughts and soaring comsumption, is a third as full as it once was. Farmers and industries are pumping water out of the ground so fast that in 15 years Beijing’s water table will be drained. The Yellow River, on which much of northern China depends for its industry and agriculture, now often dries up before reaching the sea. More than half of China’s cities suffer water shortages. This year has seen one of the worst droughts in decades. But some experts are sceptical about the scheme, much as it appeals to a leadership fond of grandiose solutions to ancient problems. So far, though, it has not aroused the bitter controversy that the equally vast plan to dam the Yangtze at the Three Gorges did before its approval in 1992. In the north, water is needed badly and the project does not threaten an area as beloved as the scenic Three Gorges. But like the earlier one, the new scheme will do considerable damage to the environment and cause massive disruption to many lives. It will also provide no more than a partial solution to China’s problem. The diverted water would follow three main routes. The western section would involve tunnelling through mountains to link the headwaters of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers.