China to pump rivers 800 miles north

Posted: 20 January 2003

Author: Tim Radford

Forty trillion litres a year are to be diverted from the Yangtze but environmentalists warn of potential disaster. Tim Radford reports.

The Chinese government has authorised one of the world's biggest engineering projects to pump water from the flood-prone south of the country to the drought-stricken north. map© The Guardian

Three man-made rivers will transfer water from the Yangtze - the world's third largest river - across 800 miles to the crowded northern provinces, where more than 400 cities now face water shortages.

The first such imported water could reach Shandong province by 2005. By 2010, water from the south could be flowing into washbasins, kettles and fountains in Beijing.

Eventually, the three channels will pump 48 billion tonnes, or 48 trillion litres, of water a year - enough to keep New York going for 25 years.

Ecological disaster

The decision comes as the climax of 50 years of debate. The late Mao Zedong, who led the communist revolution in China, is credited with first suggesting the project. But changes in climate patterns and an explosive growth in demand for water have forced a decision which ecological experts warn could have catastrophic consequences.

The first two of the three canals and aqueducts will cost more than $18bn (£11.5bn). The completed project could exceed $24bn.

The project was trailed tentatively in 2001. It was confirmed, somewhat enigmatically in November 2002.

Water resources vice-minister Zhang Jiyao said construction was ready to begin on one segment. "The south-to-north water diversion project is a megaproject that is strategically aimed at realising the optimal allocation of water resources," he said, according to the English-language China Daily.

The project will involve epic feats of engineering and could take 50 years to complete. One route involves shifting water through the mountains near the Tibetan plateau. Another requires engineers to carry water either over or under the Yellow river, once known as "China's sorrow"- 900,000 perished in just one of its floods. Since 1985, it has run dry at least once every year, and in 1997 it failed to reach the sea at all for 226 days.

But the Yellow river, protected by dykes, remains a disaster waiting to happen: its bed is on average now 15 feet above the surrounding land, and in some places it towers 40 feet above the farms and villages beside it.

Engineers will have to decide on whether to build an even higher aqueduct to leap over it, or to endanger the dykes as they tunnel below the Yellow river to get water to the north. They will also have to protect the transported water from contamination as it passes through the heavily industrialised provinces of Jiangsu and lower Shandong.

Officials have admitted that the project could disturb the ecological balance in the region. But it could also smooth agricultural and industrial growth and curb civil unrest. Others fear that it could spark widespread corruption.

Bill McGuire, head of the Benfield Greig hazards research centre at University College, London, described the project as a "classic communist approach. They always thought they could tame nature, rather than go with the flow."

In 1998, an estimated 240 million people lost livestock, crops, homes, jobs and ser vices because of Yangtze floods. More than 2,000 lost their lives. In August, rising river levels killed more than 200 and threatened 10 million people.

Growing population

But the rainfall and catastrophic run-off in the south has been matched by potentially more menacing developments in the north. Water consumption has been accelerating and urban populations have been growing.

According to the Worldwatch Institute in Washington DC, consumption has been so fierce that in 1994, for the first time, farmers around Beijing were denied water. All supplies from the local reservoirs were reserved for the city.

So to augment rivers and rainfall, the Chinese in the north began digging more wells to tap deep aquifers.

But they began using this groundwater faster than it could be replaced. The water table under the northern farmlands and orchards is now sinking at more than a metre per year.

Wells near Beijing now have to pump water from a depth of more than 1,000 metres.

Above all, the project is driven by the spectre of famine. It takes 2,000 tonnes of water to grow a ton of rice, and 1,000 tonnes of water for a tonne of wheat.

China has to feed 20per cent of the world's people on 7per cent of the world's land, and there is no margin for error.

The wheat harvest has fallen in four of the last five years, although demand has continued to grow.

During the political unrest of the 1960s, famine was blamed for at least 15 million deaths: some claim the death toll may have been 30 million.

Tim Radford is science editor with The Guardian.Source: This article first appeared in The Guardian, Wednesday November 27, 2002. All rights reserved. Reproduced with kind permission.