Ambitious Plan for China’s Water Crisis Spurs Concern

A lengthy article by Edward Wong in the New York Times looks at the various issues and complications surrounding the South-to-North Water Diversion Project, a massive and risky project to help resolve the severe scarcity of water in northern China:

The engineering feat, called the South-North Water Diversion Project, is China’s most ambitious attempt to subjugate nature. It would be like channeling water from the Mississippi River to meet the drinking needs of Boston, New York and Washington. Its $62 billion price tag is twice that of the Three Gorges Dam, which is the world’s largest hydroelectric project. And not unlike that project, which Chinese officials last month admitted had “urgent problems,” the water diversion scheme is increasingly mired in concerns about its cost, its environmental impact and the sacrifices poor people in the provinces are told to make for those in richer cities.

Three artificial channels from the Yangtze would transport precious water from the south, which itself is increasingly afflicted by droughts; the region is suffering its worst one in 50 years. The project’s human cost is staggering — along the middle route, which starts here in Hubei Province at a gigantic reservoir and snakes 800 miles to Beijing, about 350,000 villagers are being relocated to make way for the canal. Many are being resettled far from their homes and given low-grade farmland; in Hubei, thousands of people have been moved to the grounds of a former prison.

“Look at this dead yellow earth,” said Li Jiaying, 67, a hunched woman hobbling to her new concrete home clutching a sickle and a bundle of dry sticks for firewood. “Our old home wasn’t even being flooded for the project and we were asked to leave. No one wanted to leave.”

In addition to forced relocations, the project has a number of other environmental and social risks, the article continues:

[…] The central question for people in Hubei is whether the Han River, crucial to farming and industrial production hubs, will be killed to keep north China alive.

In a paper published in the Bulletin of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Mr. Du and two co-authors estimated that the diversion project would reduce the flow of the middle and lower stretches of the Han significantly, “leading to an uphill situation for the prevention of water pollution and ecological protection.” Though the study first appeared in 2006, the government has not altered its original plan, Mr. Du said.

Central planners decided on the amount of water to be diverted based on calculations of water flow in the Han done from the 1950s to the early 1990s; since then, the water flow has dropped, partly because of prolonged droughts, but planners have made no adjustments, Mr. Du said. The amount to be diverted is more than one-third of the annual water flow. “That will exert a huge damaging impact on the river,” he said.

The article also includes a video and a slideshow. Read more about the South-to-North Water Diversion Project via CDT.