China just took another step toward easing its water crisis. Water began flowing along the Eastern Route of the unassuming sounding South-North Water Diversion Project a few days ago. The project is perhaps the largest and most expensive infrastructure enterprise in the history of the human race. It will draw water from China’s fertile south to the parched north, through three sets of canals and tunnels called the Western, Middle, and Eastern routes (see map). Why? Because northern China is dying.Last Sunday, top Chinese leaders celebrated the opening of the Eastern route and urged workers to continue the invaluable work they are doing on all the routes. The project, though controversial, is deemed by China’s leaders to be the remedy to northern China’s lack of water. “China is dangerously short of water,” the Economist reported in October. “While the south is a lush, lake-filled region, the north—which has half the population and most of the farmland—is more like a desert. The international definition of water stress is 1,000 cubic metres of usable water per person per year. The average northern Chinese has less than a fifth of that amount. China has 20% of the world’s population but only 7% of its fresh water. A former prime minister, Wen Jiabao, once said water shortages threaten ‘the very survival of the Chinese nation’.” And to make matters worse, China is horribly polluting what little water it has left.The Project aims to ensure the Chinese nation survives by physically moving tons of water from south to north. The logistics are simply stunning. It will connect the Yangtze and the Yellow Rivers, two of Asia’s largest, taking 44.8 billion cubic meters of water each year out of the Yangtze and putting it into the northern Yellow River basin. There will be 3,000 kilometers of tunnels and canals through mountains, across farmland and underground—not much less than the entire length of the Mississippi River. As is normal when China builds something big, hundreds of thousands of people will be forcibly moved out of the way. The Eastern section, the one that opened recently, will eventually pump 14.8 billion cubic meters of water a year, as the Economist reports; so far, the liquid in it has been so dirty and polluted that millions of dollars have been spent on purification. The Western link is the most controversial: it crosses fragile Himalayan terrain. The Middle section should be open in a year. Together it is projected to cost $79.4 billion. “It would be cheaper to desalinate the equivalent amount of seawater,” notes the Economist, though of course much of the desalinated water would then have to be shipped uphill from the coast.There are serious financial and environmental consequences to consider with this project, and it seems doomed to be less of a triumph than China’s leaders hope. There are political damages to consider too: several of China’s water projects will affect downstream nations like Bangladesh, Myanmar, and India. China desperately needs a solution to its water crisis. Whatever else it is, the South-North Water Diversion Project is unlikely to be the final or complete answer to one of the world’s most pressing environmental problems.
China's Worsening Water CrisisMassive New Water Project Opens, But Will It Work?