China’s water diversion project starts to flow to Beijing
￡48bnscheme may provide relief to the parched north, but at what cost to thedrought-ridden south and its displaced farmers?
OnFriday afternoon, China quietly inaugurated one of the biggest engineeringprojects of all time: the South-North Water Diversion, a ￡48bn, 2,400km networkof canals and tunnels, designed to divert 44.8bn cubic metres of water annuallyfrom China’s humid south to its parched, industrialised north.
At2.32pm, the project's “middle line” officially began carrying water from theDanjiangkou reservoir in central China’s Hubei province to Beijing – thedistance from Corsica to London. The project, officials say, will save Chinafrom a water crisis that could set its development back years.
It hasalso destroyed Wang Yanhe’s life. Wang was born near the Danjiangkou reservoirin 1979, married young and had two children – the family lived between a smallstream and a leafy hillside, and grew a variety of grains. In 2009, seven yearsafter the project was approved, officials informed him that the reservoir’swater levels were rising and that his village would be submerged. About 345,000villagers have been displaced by the project to date, and Wang soon became oneof them. The government gave him a home in the Heba New Migrant Village by adusty highway in rural Pingdingshan, a coal-rich municipality in neighbouringHenan province whose name translates to “flat mountain”.
Thencame the drought. This summer was Pingdingshan’s driest in 63 years – Wang’scorn crop only grew to knee-height, forcing him to abandon his harvest.“Nothing is as good as before,” he said, chain-smoking cigarettes in hisconcrete-floored living room. His roof leaks; he can’t speak the local dialect.Officials promised him 0.2 acres of land, but only gave him 0.15. “After wearrived, we realised that the land was all dry,” he said. “So it doesn’t evenmatter what they promised us.”
TheHenan Daily newspaper announced the line’s inauguration in a pithy microblog postonFriday. “Being a peoples’ engineering project, in keeping with a frugal andpragmatic working style, celebratory activities will be kept as simple aspossible,” it said. “No officials will take part in the ceremonies.”
China’sbooming economy over the past three decades, coupled with a long-held mandateto “grow first, clean up later”, has been cataclysmic for thecountry’s once-bountiful lakes, rivers and aquifers. Morethan half of China’s 50,000 rivers have vanished over the past two decades,according to China’s first national census of water,published last year. About 70% of its remaining fresh water is polluted. “If wecontinue with our business-as-usual model, China will basically run out ofwater,” said Feng Hu, a water analyst with the Hong Kong-based researchgroup China Water Risk. “Itwon’t have enough water to power its economy.”
中国过去45年的飞速发展一直秉承着长期以来“先发展后治理”的原则，这对曾经美丽的山川河流都造成了灾难性的破坏。根据去年发表的首份中国水资源普查公报显示，已有超过半数的河流在过去30年间干涸，大致70%的淡水被污染。“如果我们继续我们之前的发展模式，中国的水资源将会耗尽”一位来自香港研究小组“chinawater risk”的水资源分析师，feng hu说道，“短缺的水资源将无法推进国家的经济发展”
Theproject has roots in an offhand comment by Mao Zedong who, onan inspection tour in the early 1950s, said: “The south has plenty of water,but the north is dry. If we could borrow some, that would be good.” Theproject has three sections: a1,150km eastern line, which runs from the lower Yangtze River to Tianjin; themiddle line, from Danjiangkou to Beijing; and a western line, which could someday link the headwaters of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers across thehigh-altitude Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. The eastern line began delivering waterto coastal Shandong province last winter. The western line remains largelyconceptual, so grand in scale that it may ultimately prove impossible to build.
While the project could provide somemuch-needed relief, it “will never solve north China’s water problem”, saidJennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Wilson Centerin Washington DC. She called the project a “Band-Aid” rather than a long-termsolution. “The challenge in the water sector, writ large, is that it is sohooked into supply-side management,” she said. “It’s like the engineers inChina have a special tattoo that says ‘nothing is too big’ – they’ll move watermassive distances rather than get deep and dirty into the mess of pushingeffective water conservation.”
In February,Qiu Baoxing, vice-minister of the Ministry of Housing and Urban-RuralDevelopment, called the project unsustainable. “As thescale of the project gets bigger and the distance gets longer, it is more andmore difficult to divert water,” he wrote. “Recycled water could replacediverted water. Most Chinese cities are capable of finding more water if wedevelop water desalination technology and collect more rain water.”
Experts saythe south may no longer have enough water to spare. They say the project coulddecimate the Han River, an important tributary of the Yangtze – about 40% ofthe river’s water will eventually be diverted north, despite acute watershortages that already plague the cities along its banks. In 2011, five monthsof drought in Hubei province left 315,000 people short of drinking water. TheDanjiangkou reservoir dropped to four metres below “dead water” level,rendering it unusable. Speculation that the South-North Water Diversion projectcaused this year’s drought grew so heated that state media issued a denial. “Henanprovince is the recipient of benefits from the [project],” Yang Biantong, aspokesman for Henan’s flood control and drought relief department, told thePeople’s Daily in late August. “Not only has it not had a negative effect, the[project] has also been extremely helpful.”
ChristineBoyle, founder of Blue Horizon Insight and an expert onChina’s water issues, said the issue boils down to how one defines a drought.In addition to crippling weather droughts – periods of little rainfall – Chinais also suffering from economic droughts, which occur when the demand for wateroutstrips supply. “You can’t say the South-North Water Diversion is causing aweather drought,” she said. “But you can say it’s intensifying an economicdrought.” Many Chinese farmers are already economically squeezed, andincreasingly erratic weather patterns, perhaps related to climate change –freezing winters, blistering summers, floods and droughts – are now pushingthem into a state of emergency.
Christineboyle是bluehorizon insight 的创始人，也是中国水资源问题的一名专家，他认为这个问题可以归结到如何去定义干旱。中国在经历严重的自然旱灾的同时，也在经受着经济上的干旱，而这发生在水资源供不应求的情况下。“你不能说南水北调造成了自然干旱”，她说，“但是你可以说它加剧了经济干旱”。许多中国农民已经在经济上受到挤压，而目前越来越阴晴不定的天气（这或许与气候变化有关）－极寒的冬天，灼热的夏天，洪水与干旱－正在把他们逼向紧迫的境地。
TheSouth-North Water Diversion project began sending emergency water supplies toPingdingshan in mid-August and, according to the official newswire Xinhua, the diversion was asuccess. The middle line delivered more than 50m cubic metres of water to thecity’s Baiguishan reservoir over a month and a half, it said, “effectivelyrelieving the scarce water supply of Pingdingshan city’s one million-plusresidents”.