South China Morning Post
August 2, 2006
Critics question the environmental cost and feasibility of the third route of the south-north water diversion scheme.
Beijing: The mainland plans to spend at least 300 billion yuan to divert water from the world’s highest plateau to the country’s north despite concerns about the project’s technical feasibility and environmental cost. Li Guoying, the director of the Ministry of Water Resources’ Yellow River Water Conservancy Committee, said it was essential to proceed with the contentious western route for the South-North Water Diversion Project, which would cut through high mountains in Sichuan and Qinghai, bordering Tibet, and link the headwaters of the Yangtze with the Yellow River. “When the economic and social development in northwest China reaches a certain level and the potential for water conservation is exhausted, this project will be launched,” Mr Li told a briefing in Beijing yesterday. He said the widening gap between limited water supplies and ever-growing demand in Beijing and the north meant authorities had been left with few options but to go for a grander, three-route south-north project.
The south-north diversion, which started in 2002 and is expected to take more than 50 years to complete, is designed to channel up to 50 billion cubic metres of water from the Yangtze northwards each year along three routes in western, central and eastern China. Construction of the western route has yet to begin, while the eastern and central routes are being built with a combined budget of about 200 billion yuan. Mr Li said the western route posed many engineering challenges, such as how to tunnel through the Qinghai-Tibet plateau and mountains to draw water from the Yalong, Dadu and Jinsha rivers. Construction of the western route could be far more difficult technically than the just-opened Qinghai-Tibet railway, he said. A total of 17 billion cubic metres of water would be transferred each year through an estimated 300km of tunnels and channels when the western route was completed.
However, Mr Li, whose committee is in charge of the western route, said there was no timetable for starting construction. Analysts said the western route was not expected to start any time soon because it had not been included in the 11th Five-Year Programme (2006-2010), while the other two routes were clearly listed as priority projects. Mr Li said the central route, which will divert as much as one-third of the annual flow of the Han River – a major tributary of the Yangtze – from Hubei’s Danjiangkou Dam, would reach Beijing before the 2008 Olympics. The south-north project has been favoured by the country’s water resources authorities despite heated debate over the project’s effectiveness, and fears it would create serious pollution and water shortages in the Yangtze. The western route, which has raised hopes in drought-hit northwestern regions such as Ningxia and Gansu , has met with strong opposition in Sichuan, which will be affected the most by the project. Lu Jiaguo, a researcher at the Academy of Social Sciences in Sichuan and an outspoken critic of the western route, said he doubted that 300 billion yuan would be enough to finish the western route because the costs had been calculated based on prices six years ago. Professor Lu wrote a letter to Premier Wen Jiabao in 2004 listing the threats the project posed to the environment and traditional culture of Tibetan communities in Sichuan and Qinghai and has joined many experts in questioning the wisdom of building such a project in an earthquake zone. Professor Lu said his views had been ignored, although Mr Wen had instructed relevant ministries and local authorities to take his concerns into consideration. “The project should not be allowed to go ahead as the government has yet to find mature solutions to address those difficulties and concerns,” Professor Lu said.