Bringing water to the thirsty north – China’s South-North Water Transfer Project

As we saw yesterday, China’s water problem urgently needs solutions. As is often the case in China, the Party has pushed forward a single massive project as their favorite option. This project is known as the “South-North Water Diversion Project,” and was inspired by a quote from none other than Chairman Mao who stated, “Southern water is plentiful, northern water scarce. If at all possible, borrowing some water would be good.” Mao may have gotten the idea from the Soviet Union, which was also working on a similar project at the time (that project was abandoned in the 80’s due to environmental concerns). The project began in 2002, and some sections are already in use.

The plan seems straight forward enough, pump water from the Yangtze River to the Yellow River (and other northern rivers) at three separate stretches. In theory this will allow China to take advantage of water that would otherwise flow into the ocean.

At the moment, droughts in the north contribute to considerable economic losses not only for farmers, but for factories and mining operations. Additionally, major cities like Beijing and Tianjin are facing water shortages that effect millions of urbanites.

There are of course some major concerns about such a large scale project.

For environmentalists, the problems are clear, diverting the flow of water from the Yangtze could further endanger the already disrupted ecosystem. The three-gorges dam accelerated the extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin, and has critically endangered the Yangtze River finless porpoise. Also, with a lower flow of water, the river would have it’s self-cleansing capabilities further reduced. This would mean an even more polluted river system; bare in mind that “cancer villages” already exist along the banks of its tributaries.

For southern farmers and factory owners, it means an increased risk of drought. Even though Mao declared southern water to be plentiful, it did little to change the actual situation. Additionally, Chinese scientists claim that 94% of the rivers’ waters pour out in to the ocean, but during the north’s driest months, the Yangtze region also faces drought. Using a Google news search, I found that there were “severe” droughts in the area in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2011. The least serious of these effected nearly 4.5 million people. Even in typical years, the Yangtze region faces seasonal power shortages. In drought years, the project would have to drastically reduce its diversion, and would sit largely idle during the key period of the year (wasting ~$60 billion worth of infrastructure).

In order to minimize the effects of water shortages in the Yangtze River, some have suggested diverting water from the Brahmaputra and Mekong rivers (which start in China but flow through other countries before reaching the sea). China has confirmed that it has already started building dams along the Brahmaputra in Tibet, which has become a major source of contention between it and India (who already have strained relations). While this is not officially part of the South-North Water Diversion Project, it is seen as a possible first step.

The massive project ignores the possibility of more practical solutions, which would include raising the price of water, increasing enforcement of existing water use limits, and moving towards efficient use. As Ken Pomeranz stated in an interview on The China Beat on the topic (worth reading in full),

 “Probably most of the water savings that you could achieve without greatly reducing economic output are in agriculture, where a lot of irrigation is very inefficient (and not just in China); in fact, I think there’s a good case to be made that if you put anything like the cost of the South-North water diversion project into fixing a million leaky faucets, lining a million unlined irrigation ditches, enforcing existing wastewater treatment standards (allowing more water to be re-used), etc., etc., you could do more to alleviate the problem (and more safely) than the diversion project will do.”

For more on China’s water problems I reccomend Jonathan Watts’ excellent book “When a Billion Chinese Jump,” and this photo essay from Foreign Policy.

3 responses to “Bringing water to the thirsty north – China’s South-North Water Transfer Project”

  1. Albert says:

    Water problem is serious now. I’ve watch a documentary called Garbage Warrior. Michael Reynolds, this guy builds self-sufficient house for more than 30 years. He exploits rain water very clever. His house collects rain and uses it four times. During the time of indonesia tsunami, he led his team helped local people to build rain collection house, to solve their water problem. I think in the future it should be introduced to China. I want to make a trip to visit New Mexico on his Earthship project. Anyway, nice article.

  2. kingtubby1 says:

    Good stuff Tom. Let me add something on the Sino water engineering mindset from my defunct site.

  3. vicky says:

    i like it because water is made of lemons

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.