South-North Water Diversion Project

Water scheme’s western route troubles Sichuan scholars

21st Century Economic Report
September 12, 2006

‘We are really concerned about the western route of the south-north water transfer project. We wonder whether the proposed scheme could do little or nothing to save the Yellow River, and end up destroying the Yangtze instead.’

Below, a summary of an article by He Zhongping that appeared in 21st
Century Economic Report (Ershiyi shiji jingji baodao) on Aug. 24.
(Translation and summary by Three Gorges Probe.)


“We are really concerned about the western route of the
south-north water transfer project. We wonder whether the proposed
scheme could do little or nothing to save the Yellow River, and end up
destroying the Yangtze instead.”

— Professor Liu Shiqing, secretary-general of the West Development Research Centre, Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences, Chengdu


The western route of the south-north water transfer project is designed
to divert water from tributaries of the Yangtze, including the Dadu,
Yalong and Jinsha rivers, to the upper reaches of the Yellow River.
Work on the eastern and middle routes of the diversion project was
formally launched in 2002, and construction on the western route is
scheduled to get under way in 2010. The volume of water diverted along
the western route is projected to amount to 17 billion cubic metres a
year.
The western route has been budgeted at about 304 billion yuan RMB
(US$38 billion at 2000 fixed prices), but someone has also estimated
that as much as 500 billion yuan (US$62.5 billion at 2000 prices) would
be needed because of the extremely difficult geological and climatic
challenges the project faces.
A memo on the western route of the water diversion project, signed by a
number of leading scholars and experts in Sichuan, was made public at
the end of July.1
In a sense, the document is not just a memo but rather a petition that
questions the wisdom of building the project. It offers suggestions in
the following areas:

  • the major problems related to engineering geology;
  • the shrinking of the glaciers on the Tibetan plateau and water-volume shortages on the source rivers’ upper reaches;
  • the impact of building the project on the environment of the Tibetan Plateau;
  • the project’s impact on the west-east power transmission scheme;
  • issues related to the compensation of residents affected by the project;
  • schemes to protect religion, culture and relics if the project goes ahead;
  • investment model for project construction;
  • a comparative study of the proposed project and alternative engineering programs.

Lin
Ling, an economist and former director of the Sichuan Academy of Social
Sciences, observed: “We are well aware that building the western route
is much more difficult and riskier than building the Three Gorges
project. The latter was debated by the Chinese People’s Political
Consultative Conference and finally voted on by the National People’s
Congress. But the planners in charge of the western route simply
declared that it had been given the green light, claiming that the
announcement by the central government of the formal launch of the
eastern and middle routes meant the western route could go ahead too.”
Scientists, scholars and experts in Sichuan province knew nothing about
the planning and design of the western route until March 2005, when the
Ministry of Water Resources convened a conference in the provincial
capital, Chengdu, and invited a group of scientists and experts to
discuss the proposal. In fact, however, an expert panel had already
approved the Yellow River Conservancy Commission’s plan to build the
western route as far back as July 2001.
Professor Lin and many other scientists and experts in Sichuan are
unhappy both with the way the plan was approved and with the plan
itself, in which few local academics have been involved. Some of them
have written letters to Premier Wen Jiabao, while others have travelled
to the area affected by the project to collect more data and conduct
further research.
“The aim of drafting this memo was to try and draw more attention to
the plan from all sides, so it can be subject to a scientific and
democratic decision-making process at the state level. We are appealing
for more care and serious consideration, from a long-term perspective,
in making a decision that involves such important state interests and
safety issues,” Professor Lin told 21st Century Economic Report. He
raised a number of questions, including:

  • What impact would construction of the project have on the environment of the Tibetan plateau?
  • Could the project have negative impacts on the climate in China, and even in Asia as a whole?
  • Is it possible to pump 17 billion cubic metres of water from the Tibetan plateau at a time when the glaciers are shrinking?
  • Is it right to use the diverted water to discharge sediment building up in the Yellow River?

In the memo, Pan Guitang, senior researcher at the Chengdu Geology and
Minerals Institute of the Ministry of Land and Resources, and Liu
Baojun, member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and professor at the
China Geological Survey Bureau, made a joint statement. They said it
would be unwise to push ahead with the western route simply because
work had already begun on the eastern and middle routes. With a number
of tremendously important issues unaddressed and unresolved,
constructing the western route would be very risky, they wrote. In the
statement, the two scientists presented three general principles that
they feel should govern the development of water resources. Firstly,
the outmoded way of thinking, in which man conquers nature, must be
replaced by a respect for nature. Secondly, the system in which
important decisions on water resources are made by a single water
department needs to be changed to one in which the public is invited to
participate, and more sectors are involved. And finally, the
traditional approach that has focused on building dams and diverting
water should be transformed into a new way of thinking and of practice
aimed at the harmonious development of people, society and nature.


Footnote:
1 The drafters of the memo include well-known academics such as Lin Ling, former director of the Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences; Liu Baojun, member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and professor at the China Geological Survey Bureau; Ma Huaixin, president of the Hydro Electricity Association of Sichuan; Liu Shiqing, secretary-general at the West Development Research Centre, Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences.
The long list of contributors to the memo also includes professors and senior researchers from the Chengdu Institute for Mountain Hazards and Environmental Research of the CAS, the Chengdu Institute for Life Sciences of the CAS, Sichuan University, Chengdu University of Technology and Southwest Normal University, along with senior engineers from the Sichuan Power Grid Company and Ertan Corporation, officials from Sichuan People’s Congress, the Environmental Protection Bureau of Sichuan and the Development and Reform Commission of Sichuan, among others.

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