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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.

What do middle class Chinese want?

This past weekend I had the chance to go to a nearby resort with my co-worker’s family. It was a great opportunity to see how China’s newly wealthy spend their money, and I was reminded of what priorities they have when it comes time for vacation.

Value

To me, the urge to get the most use of the money spent, was surprising. For instance, we had many places that we wanted to visit after we checked out, but our friends insisted on waiting until noon to leave the hotel. When noon did finally roll around, there was a giant mob of people checking out as well. It seemed as if everyone had whiled away their morning in an effort to get their full allotment of hotel room time.

We saw this in the hot springs themselves as well. The resort boasted having over 100 kinds of water infused with different herbs. This meant that roughly every 5-10 minutes we would switch which pool we were soaking in. No one seemed to be aware of what the benefits of each herb were exactly, but it seemed as if everyone was willing to brave the below freezing temperatures to run from one tub to the next, if we didn’t try every pool, it would have been a waste.

As Dan, from China Law Blog, mentioned in a recent post, Chinese consumers seem to be willing to pay far more for a product than it might actually be worth, if it looks like a luxury good. However, there have also been several reports, that indicate that these same consumers are later disappointed by the products they bought at inflated prices (which is unsurprising). As much as China’s nouveau riche seem to only be concerned with foreign brands, value is becoming a far more important quality.

“Foreign”

From what I saw this weekend, “western” designs based off of ideas of what Europe or the US might look like are now competing more with “foreign” designs in general. There were Thai inspired lobbies, coffee from Brazil and Jamaica, and spas inspired by Turkish baths. Chinese consumers have started to recognize the prestige of global products, not just those that come from developed countries.

However, there is still little attention paid to the actual details, and consumers are still unsure of what is or isn’t a good deal. The coffee cost $5 a cup and was made from instant crystals. The Turkish bath included fish that nibbled at your dead skin, a practice that started in Japan, but no sweat rooms or vigorous scrubbing. The same goes for many other “foreign” goods in China, even though value is a priority, it is still very hard for China’s consumers to gauge international products for which they have no previous experience.

The thing to remember though, is that Chinese consumers are quickly learning how to distinguish between these goods. So building a company off of goods that simply look good, might not be a workable long term plan. It is important to remember that Chinese consumers are looking to foreign products for exotic styles and high quality.

Social Space

Finally, I found it a little funny, that there seemed to be very few couples alone at the hot springs. There were groups of couples, or groups of same sex friends, but I don’t know if I saw more than 1 or 2 couples on a romantic get-away out of the hundreds of people.

In many Chinese hotels, especially near tourist sites, you’ll find that the public spaces are used much more frequently compared to what you would see in the US. If there isn’t a lobby where they can play cards, than they will play in their rooms with the doors propped open. Social spaces are a must when it comes to Chinese tourists, who more often than not are travelling with a group of friends, rather than as a family or couple.

Nowhere was this more apparent than on the cruise I took down the Yangtze River last year. The company had carefully segregated the passengers into Chinese and non-Chinese, which at first left a few of the foreigners a little frustrated. By the second day though, it was clear why they had done it. The foreign quarters were almost completely silent, every door was closed, and very few people were traveling in more than pairs.

On the Chinese side of the boat, doors where always open and the sound of mahjong tiles seemed omnipresent. Children literally ran up and down the hall in some kind of marathon, while their parents shouted at them to come to dinner. While this was driving a few of the foreigners crazy, even though they were just passing through it, the Chinese passengers viewed it as a normal use of the social space.

A New Path Out of Poverty?

Today a provincial gov’t announced a new relocation project that would move 2.8 million people from their homes, nearly twice as many as were moved for the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. This project though is not to clear the way for a massive new infrastructure project, but is instead aimed at poverty alleviation and avoiding disasters.

The project is looking to move people from rural Shaanxi to some of the larger towns and cities, and will no doubt be a topic of debate over the next few years.

The argument the gov’t makes is that this project could help to limit some of China’s rural problems. By moving rural people to larger towns it would improve access to medical care and education, with the possibility of providing local jobs that would keep families closer together. The People’s Daily article found a few farmers who were very optimistic about what this might mean for them (surprisingly they didn’t interview anyone against it).

Almost all of the people being moved are living in desperate poverty in a region that seems especially unforgiving. It seems like almost any project would  improve their standing, however similar things were said during China’s last great relocation.

During the Three Gorges Dam project farmers were relocated from the small villages where their fields were, to newly built towns. They were given a small monthly allowance, a new apartment, and a little job training (this is also what is happening on a smaller scale every time a new factory, railroad, or airport is built here, and is what happened to many families after the Sichuan Earthquake).

Often the people who are relocated realize that they do not have the abilities needed to find new jobs, and have no farm land to return to, and that they sold their land for far too little money. In many cases they end up worse off than when they were farming since they are cut off from access to the capital they could have used to pull themselves out of poverty.

These relocation projects have become so unpopular that they have lead to large scale protests in dozens of provinces throughout China. The government has also had to step in to urge police not to assist local governments in forcing people out of their homes.

These projects often turn out poorly because there are rarely 2.8 million low skilled jobs available for these farmers who are adapting to a completely new life.

If this project is met with little resistance from the locals, than I worry that this could become a new trend. Building projects like this show up in local officials GDP numbers which lead to nice promotions. It also raises the question which China will have to address in these next few decades, Can the physical location of a village doom its residents to a life of poverty?

Can the world afford China’s heating bill?

Yesterday we were looking at how cold it is outdoors and in here in China. Today I want to get to the meat of the problem that lies just beyond that thought. Is it possible for China (or any country) to develop without destroying the fragile environment?

I’ll start with something I’m not so proud of; my wife and I are currently running 3 space heaters full blast, all the time. Not because we’re trying to recreate the climate of sunny Florida, or even temperate San Francisco, this is just what it takes to keep our apartment from feeling like winter in Minnesota. At the office we also have two heaters running non-stop, and still I have to pause between sentences to hold my hot cup of tea.

My other co-worker, Jasmine, told me the other day that it was only a few years ago that office workers would wear 4-5 layers and tough out the frigid days in the office. Now though everyone is starting to expect the office to be at least comfortable with only 2 layers. Oh the things I had taken for granted before coming to China.

The big problem is that heating is a new thing for most of the people living in southern China, since a long time ago the govt. decided that we didn’t need central heating. So it is common for people to still leave windows open while the heater is on. I also spend a good chunk of time every day getting up from my desk and closing the door behind the people who leave it flung wide open, or closing the bathroom windows that blow less than fresh air down the hall.  I wonder how long it will be before fathers in China start carefully guarding the thermostat, and sarcastically ask their child, “Are you trying to heat the outdoors?”

So rising wealth in China is now allowing more people to buy heaters for their apartments, and we south of the Yangtze will no longer freeze each winter. I think we could agree generally that people not freezing to death is progress. At the same time, when I look at the high-rise apartment blocks and see all of the individual heating units whirring, I hate to think of the amount of energy and burning coal it takes to keep me and the rest of the middle class warm.

Winter in China, and Why I Hate It

It’s cold here in Nanjing, outside and inside.

Proof

It’s been about 30 degrees outside all month with 10 to 15 mph winds. Which in the US is not that bad, and we’ve only had a tiny amount of snow compared to all of you guys this year. So what’s the big deal?

Well in our apartment and at my office, it probably only ever reaches 50 degrees inside if conditions are just right. The cement walls are excellent at bringing the cold in.

In the apartment the cool climate is due to the fact that none of our windows actually close. Even with our improvised weather-proofing, Arctic winds somehow still find their way in. Standing next to the closed front door you can feel a breeze.

In a developing country, this passes as insulation

At the office we actually have nice windows, but those only make a difference when they are kept closed. Every morning Grace has a need for “Fresh Air,” which, if you read my first post, you’ll remember doesn’t exist in China. The second fault in heating the office is that we have central air, but only in each room, so all of the hallways are maybe 20 degrees cooler, due to the need for fresh air in the bathrooms and hallway. Which has led to another interesting discovery, nobody in China seems to know how to shut a door, and so every 15 minutes the office loses all of its heat.

This however, is much better than when I lived in Guangxi where there was no heating in the classrooms. I remember sitting in the classroom, wearing three layers of socks, and still not being able to feel my feet. I would bring a bottle of hot water to class everyday so that the students could take turns warming their hands. Another winter I perfected typing with gloves, which is more of an accomplishment than it might sound like.

For me it’s always been cold in the winters in China because I have always lived south of the Yangtze River. Which sounds funny but, a long time ago the Central Govt. decided that only north of the river was cold enough to justify installing radiator heating. That has had far-reaching consequences for the environment, which I’ll talk about tomorrow, but for now I’m going to put on another layer and hold my cup of coffee a little closer.