Beijing Water

The drag of the South-North Diversion Project

Brady Yauch
Probe International
May 21, 2009

A never-ending domino of band-aid infrastructure projects

A recent announcement that the much-criticized South-North Diversion Project is facing further delays may be the first sign that the Chinese government is reconsidering its penchant to pursue massively ambitious infrastructure projects. A recent article by Jonathan Watts in the British newspaper, The Guardian, highlights both the political and economic costs that have washed over the government in its determination to push ahead with the contentious project.

The Three Gorges Dam may have attracted more attention from international media, but it pales in both cost and scale to the South-North Diversion project.

According to Watts, the project will be “more than twice as expensive as the Three Gorges Dam and three times longer than the railway to Tibet.” It is expected “to channel a greater volume (of water) than the Thames along three channels – each more than 600 miles long—from the moist Yangtze basin up to the dry lands above the Yellow River.”

The planning for the project has been anything but smooth. “The project has sparked so many ecological, financial and political concerns that government advisers are calling for the plan to be delayed and, possibly, curtailed, raising the possibility that this could prove a mega project too far even for China.”

Nearly every part of the project is facing unexpected hurdles. “A year after the first leg was supposed to be complete, all three routes have hit snags,” says Watts. “The eastern leg, along the Grand Canal, was supposed to be easiest to finish, but pollution in this heavily industrialised region is so great that water treatment is prohibitively expensive.” Some areas have reportedly been looking towards desalination plants as a more viable option.

But the problems get even worse as construction begins on the more intricate engineering and design elements of the project. “The western leg,” he says, “has been suspended over concerns about the political and economic cost of diverting water from the Yangtze to the Yellow, high on the Tibet-Qinghai plateau.”

And the relocations that have plagued other projects, such as the Three Gorges dam, are again complicating the North-South Diversion Project: Watts points out that “about 300,000 people will have to be relocated and swaths of farmland cleared.”

Also troubling implementation of the project is that every step requires multiple band-aid solutions, creating a never-ending domino effect of infrastructure projects. Shen Xiaoli from the Research Academy of Environmental Science in Hubei tells Watts that, “once a construction project starts upstream, it requires water compensation downstream. This, in turn, necessitates other projects to deal with the negative impacts. It’s a circle in which you need ever more solutions and ever more funds.”

For example, Du Yun, a geologist at the China Academy of Sciences, believes “that the diversion of a third of the water at the Danjiangkou reservoir will raise the risk of pollution, sedimentation and flooding on the Han River.” In order to combat these fears, the government has come up with a plan to divert water from the Three Gorges dam reservoir on the Yangtze to the Han River.

But, says Watts, this is “essentially robbing Peter to pay Paul,” adding that it, “will require at least 400 miles of channels to be dug through farmland.”

And the project is creating many of the same tensions among farmers and other citizens as the construction of the Three Gorges dam has: the North-South Water Diversion Project will drastically alter the ecological systems that support the livelihoods of local farmers. One resident told Watts that locals are extremely worried about the new water diversion projects, as it means they’ll lose about a fifth of their water. But, just as in the past, they’re afraid to stand up to the central government.

Scholars may not be so intimidated. In the wake of massive infrastructure projects such as Three Gorges dam and the South-North Diversion Project, many scientists are now questioning the worth of mega projects. Watts highlights this trend, saying “ a new generation of academics and policy makers has started to question the ‘big is beautiful’ approach of the past,” a reform that would be welcomed by social activists and environmentalists alike.

Further Reading:

Recent article in the Times of India discussing the number of citizens expected to be displaced as a result of the diversion project.

Beijing’s Water Crisis: 1949-2008 Olympics | 2010 Update

China delays part of massive water project

Water crisis in north China

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