Reporting from Zhengzhou, China — It might be the most ambitious construction project in China since the Great Wall.
The Chinese government is planning to reroute the nation's water supply, bringing water from the flood plains of the south and the snowcapped mountains of the west to the parched capital of Beijing. First envisioned by Mao Tse-tung in the 1950s and now coming to fruition, the South-North Water Diversion — as it is inelegantly known in English — has a price tag of more than $62 billion, twice as expensive as the famous Three Gorges Dam. It is expected to take decades to complete.
"This is on a par with the Great Wall, a project essential for the survival of China," said Wang Shushan, who heads the project in Henan province, where much of the construction is now taking place. "It is a must-do project. We can't afford to wait."
Even by the standards of a country where moving heaven and Earth is all in a day's work, it is a project of enormous hubris. In effect, the Chinese are "replumbing" the entire country, says Orville Schell, a China scholar and an environmentalist, something "no country has ever done successfully in the past."
China is plagued by extreme weather. Vast river deltas in the south are inundated each year by deadly flooding, while the steppes of the north are swept by sandstorms. To remedy this, the engineers are creating a vast, hydra-like network of canals, tunnels and aqueducts that will extend thousands of miles across the country.
In complexity, it is something of a Rube Goldberg machine. The middle route — there are three in all —would siphon water from a tributary of the Yangtze River 570 miles southwest of Beijing. The water is then funneled through a canal that transverses three provinces and passes underneath the Yellow River.
"It is a little like building the tunnel under the English Channel to connect France and England — except we're moving water, not vehicles," said Yang Sheya, 38, an engineering supervisor working on the underground aqueduct along the banks of the Yellow River, where it passes just north of Henan's provincial capital, Zhengzhou.
Here, the Chinese hydro-engineers have scooped out a 1,000-foot-wide canal from the dun-colored land. It plunges 180 feet underground to pass beneath the Yellow River. (The Yellow itself is too polluted to supply drinking water.)
From a footbridge at the spot where the canal begins its descent, there is a man-made abyss that looks like the Grand Canyon. Everything is massive, from the mountains of excavated dirt to the huge riverside drills that will be used to install underground pipes almost 25 feet in diameter.
The Chinese have studied water works from ancient China to Israel, updated with the latest technology, to design a system that uses no pumps, relying only on gravity to have the water run from the higher elevations of the south to Beijing. A spur will also feed the port city of Tianjin to the east.
The outsized scale of the project has left many Chinese activists sputtering with indignation.
They point out the affront to river ecosystems and fish and bird life, the damage to the archaeological sites in what is widely considered the cradle of Chinese civilization, and the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of people. And, most of all, the underlying arrogance of an undertaking that in essence rearranges the nation's great rivers.
"They are robbing the water of the rest of China to supply Beijing — and it probably won't work anyway," said Dai Qing, a pro-democracy activist who was imprisoned during the run-up to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and who now focuses on water issues.
Dai said there wasn't enough clean water in southern China to supply the north and that whatever water does reach Beijing might be too polluted to be usable. In fact, the Chinese government has acknowledged that the water from an eastern spur of the diversion project, which follows the route of the 1,400-year-old Grand Canal waterway, is so toxic that it is unclear whether it can be used even for agriculture.
Beijing, Dai said, should never have been developed as a major economic and industrial hub.
"We've been saying this for years: Beijing was just the political and cultural capital of China, and if the population were kept under 6 million, we wouldn't have this problem," she said. "But now there are too many vested political and real estate interests."
Yet with Beijing's population topping 17 million and projected to double in the next 40 years, there's no turning back.
Politically speaking, the project is sacrosanct, its genesis tied to an offhand remark Mao reportedly made in 1952: "There's a lot of water in the south, but not much in the north. If we could borrow some, then everything would be OK."