Beijing Water

Cities in China’s north resist tapping water piped from south

China’s massive South-to-North Water Diversion project, created to relieve a water crisis in the country’s parched north by tapping its more water-rich south, has produced an unexpected outcome: many cities in north China aren’t using the water. The Wall Street Journal looks at why.

In a report on why cities in China’s north are balking at using water supplied by the country’s South-to-North Water Diversion project (SNWDP), Te-Ping Chen reporting for the Wall Street Journal, finds that cost and confusion are behind the unexpected outcome.

In many cases, she writes, the infrastructure each city must build in order to actually use the transferred water — pipes, pumping and processing plants — has been off-putting. The cost of the transferred water also increases according to the distance it must travel to reach a particular city; that distance cost, in addition to the cost of infrastructure, has posed a challenge for local officials when it comes to determining how to price water supplied by the SNWDP project for consumers.

Instead of using the water supply intended to give dwindling resources a break, many cities are continuing to rely on groundwater and other resources already stretched thin, Ms. Chen reports. Cao Shengle, a professor at Shandong University who researches water resources, told her that because groundwater is cheaper than transferred water, it is more attractive to some municipalities.

“If we can’t build the infrastructure, then there won’t be any users for the water,” he said.

However, exploitation of groundwater resources over decades has caused substantial problems, including poor-quality drinking water and groundwater-related subsidence (or sinking of the land) — parts of Dezhou, in northwestern Shandong province, have reportedly dropped three feet.

But cities, whether they use water supplied by the diversion scheme or not, reports Ms. Chen, are still obligated to cover the costs of funding and maintaining the infrastructure required to support the scheme’s transfer of water. A situation that is likely to serve as an inducement to use it, said Mr. Shengle. [Read the full version of Te-Ping Chen’s article at the publisher’s website here]

A study released earlier this year, co-authored by a consortium of British, Chinese, and American universities, concluded that China’s approach to water scarcity — including moving water across vast distances via transfer systems — isn’t working. The south-to-north water transfer project was singled out by the study’s authors as an example of “pouring good water after bad” and a source of increased stress instead of relief: failing to alleviate the problems of regions supposed to benefit from the scheme’s water supply and increasing stress in the provinces tapped for the scheme to share their resources. [See: China’s water policies are exacerbating water stress, says new study]

More elegant and effective solutions are available. Probe International’s executive director, Patricia Adams, in her address to a 2014 international symposium on China’s environmental crisis, said there were many alternatives that hadn’t been considered, such as using markets and laws to properly reflect water scarcity, as well as incentivizing Beijing’s residents and entrepreneurs to rehabilitate the watershed and recharge groundwater and aquifers. But these options are “more difficult to craft,” she said, “given the institutional desert that the Communist Party has created.”  [See: Saving China’s environment: give power to the people]

For more on China’s South-to-North water diversion project

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