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China Sees Grand Solution to Its Water Problem

A $60-billion project would divert resource from the south to parched north. Critics say the supply would reach cities, not farmers.

March 09, 2003|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

LIUZHUANGBEILING, China — Water is so scarce in this drought-stricken patch of countryside that precipitation is treated like jewels from the sky.

"When it rains, we throw plastic sheets on the ground to catch it as it falls -- we won't let a single drop go to waste," said Lian Jixiang, head of this village in Shandong province in northeastern China.

So little rain has fallen so far this year that authorities are calling it the driest season in five decades. Large stretches of northern China have seen riverbeds turned into grazing grounds and fertile fields reduced to dust bowls.

Not to worry. The Chinese government has a grand plan to change all that, on the scale of the Great Wall, in the spirit of the Great Leap Forward and even more expensive than the Three Gorges Dam.

Officials call it the South to North Water Diversion Project. It would pump water from the plentiful south to the parched north by redirecting streams from the swollen Yangtze to the shrinking Yellow River. Three canals, two of them about 1,000 miles long each, would cross some of the Earth's highest plains and displace hundreds of thousands of residents in order to deliver water to at least 39 major cities and about 50 million people.

Supporters say the mega-project's benefits would far surpass its projected cost of about $60 billion, more than double the initial price tag for the colossal Three Gorges Dam under construction along the Yangtze in south-central China.

"China needs to feed 20% of the world's population on 7% of its arable land. Much of that land lies in the northern part of the country, and it is running dry," said Zhang Ren, a retired Qinghua University engineering professor with a lifelong involvement in the country's water projects. "We have to do this now. We have no other choice."

Unlike the Three Gorges Dam, which touched off a storm of controversy worldwide over its environmental and human effects, this idea has received relatively little publicity. But critics both inside and outside China see a potential white elephant that could create more problems than it solves.

"The whole idea is based on the false assumption that water from the Yangtze is a limitless resource," said Yang Dongping, a member of Friends of Nature, a Beijing-based environmental group. "Why not push for water conservation instead? It's much more cost-effective."

Modest ambitions are not what Beijing's leaders have in mind. Already, officials have funneled billions of dollars into gigantic public works projects that they hope will fuel the Chinese economy and fend off a rising tide of unemployment.

More than the plans to build the world's fastest train, longest bridge, tallest building and highest rail track, the canal project reflects Beijing's unflinching faith in costly engineering solutions to the nation's basic problems.

"It's a way to insulate the government from blame," said Brian Halweil, a researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, based in Washington. "If water scarcity gets worse and farmers begin to protest, the government can hold up the diversion effort as an attempt to solve the problem."

The concept of borrowing water from the south was first envisioned by Mao Tse-tung during the early 1950s, shortly after the Communist revolution. But prohibitive costs and political turmoil stymied the project.

The country, however, has seen an economic boom in recent decades, and it can no longer afford to let water scarcity hamper its growth.

In China, the water available for each person is about one-quarter of the global average. Northern China dips into only about one-fifth of the nation's total supply. Yet it is home to about half the country's 1.3 billion people.

According to the World Bank, water shortages have cost the Chinese an estimated $14 billion in lost industrial output and about $24 billion in potential rural productivity.

In 1972, for the first time in memory, the downstream portion of the Yellow River ran dry for 15 days, with the waters not reaching the sea. Since then, severe drought and overuse have conspired to consistently strain the river's water supply. For more than 200 days in 1997, the river again dried up short of the sea.

Officials say the country's water deficiency could hit the danger limit by 2030, when the population is expected to swell to about 1.6 billion and annual freshwater resources fall to about 1,700 cubic meters a person, one-fifth of what's now available to the average American.

Conservation alone won't be enough to quench a thirst of this magnitude; supporters of the canal project say that's like asking a poor man to get rich by saving money he doesn't have to spare.

But critics argue that much of the water scarcity is human-made. The historically arid north should never have been turned into the country's water-guzzling breadbasket, they say. To counter decades of misguided growth with another muscle-flexing cure amounts to nothing more than an environmental disaster in the making, the critics add.

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