Beijing Water

Concern mounts in China over Yangtze diversion project

China’s ambitious South-to-North Water Diversion project officially begins flowing next month and the impacts of the costly geo-engineering giant are starting to be felt in the regions tapped to redistribute water to the country’s parched north. “This project from the beginning has been as controversial as the Three Gorges,” says Probe International fellow and leading Chinese environmental journalist, Dai Qing.

October 14, 2014: In “Concern mounts in China over Yangtze diversion project,” Lucy Hornby, writing for the Financial Times, details some of the problems that have emerged with Beijing’s “titanic effort to redistribute water” to the dry north of the country. For instance, areas in the south historically more concerned with flooding, increasingly face water shortages.

To help address the loss of water flow to the south, reports Hornby, the “Bringing the Yangtze to help the Han River” canal project was inaugurated to help offset shortages in areas tapped for supply:

The smaller Yangtze-to-Han canal shows how national authorities have had to accommodate local concerns. By replenishing water diverted from the upper Han [a Yangtze tributary], the 67km canal allows the lower Han to remain navigable and preserves the industrial base around Wuhan, a city of 6.5m at the confluence of the Han and the Yangtze. “But that won’t resolve the problem,” says Du Yun, of the Institute of Geodesy and Geophysics in Wuhan. “The problem of not enough water in the south will certainly crop up.”

A 2012 study by the Hubei Academy of Environmental Science found the diversion project was likely to reduce the Han’s water levels to such an extent it would interrupt shipping, make some irrigation networks unusable and decimate fish stocks that depend on the river and its flood cycles , reports Hornby. Yet other issues could result:

Less water to dilute polluted waste and run-off could pose a greater risk to human health and raise the cost to cities and industry to treat the water.

In central China, once flood-prone cities along the Yangtze River already face “worrisome signs” of a dry-up due to the impact of the Three Gorges Dam on the river that the transfer project could exacerbate:

The Three Gorges dam has lowered silt deposits in the river beneath it, causing some islands in the Yangtze delta to shrink, while barge traffic has been left stranded when water levels run low. Shanghai, China’s financial centre, has had to fight incursions of seawater into its water supply when the Yangtze’s flow slows.

That could become worse with the regular diversion of 9.5bn cubic metres a year of water from the Danjiangkou dam on the Han river [the starting point of the project’s massive middle route], which will feed canals and pipes running 1,400km north across two provinces to Beijing.

Chinese environmental journalist, Dai Qing, told Hornby the diversion project “has been as controversial as the Three Gorges.” Qing, Hornby notes, was instrumental in mobilizing opposition to the Three Gorges mega-dam project in the late 1980s, a project, she adds, that has remained plagued by problems since its completion in 2006. 

Like Three Gorges, critics of China’s South-to-North Water Diversion project wonder whether it will create more problems than it solves. For example, the eastern leg, supposedly the least complex of the routes, ran into problems with distributing polluted water from supply waterways in a heavily industrialized region where water treatment is prohibitively expensive. Reports Hornby:

The diversion project has progressed in fits and starts, resulting in huge cost overruns (the original budget was about $20bn) and creating a complex cast of winners and losers. Among them are the 345,000 villagers forced to relocate to make way for the expanded Danjiangkou reservoir.

“They wanted it to be done in one fell swoop but society has changed,” says Ms Dai. “Now everyone wants to know: what’s in it for me?”

The success of the diversion projects underway will determine whether Beijing proceeds with the scheme’s most expensive and controversial western leg, writes Hornby; an undertaking that will require blasting channels through mountains on the Tibetan plateau to move water to the upper reaches of China’s Yellow River.

But will the country’s unbridled engineering ambition pay off? Hornby’s article ends by taking a different direction than the one planned by the diversion scheme:

Critics say China would be wiser to raise the cost of water in places where it is in short supply, rather than engaging in massive transfers to suit political constituencies in the north. Leo Horn-Pathanothai, an environmental economist at the World Resources Institute, says: “China’s answer to date has been engineering to increase supply. Now the problem is national scarcity and the solutions are better economics and governance.”

This story is available in full at the publisher’s website.

For more on China’s South-North Water Diversion Project, see the Probe International archive here.

For more on the Danjiangkou Reservoir, see the Probe International archive here.

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