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China's Worsening Water Crisis
Massive New Water Project Opens, But Will It Work?

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.

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  • Andrew Allison

    Any information on the impact of diverting 44.8 billion gallons of water from the Yangtze to the Yellow River Basin on the world’s second largest construction project ( the Three Georges Dam)? The Yangtze Basin? Given the proximity of the Mekong River to the Yangtze, the Mekong Basin would be threatened by amelioration efforts.

  • Duperray

    I like this paper, I fully share its views. EU Commission appears more and more anachronic because it is even not elected, is without responsability and can organize its very profitable and lobbyed underground mess, uncovering its pityful lack of any national or regional concern during Ukraine crisis.

  • Boritz

    Good luck prying control of their government from the claws of the political class.

  • Shahar Luft

    UK devolution is not anti-Brussels – it’s exactly what the EU at its worst was about all along: replacing the straight-lined Westphalian and democratic system of mutually exclusive sovereignties with a maze of cross-cutting and overlapping duchies, earldoms, fifedoms, custom unions, personal unions, minor republics and city states. There will be no centre for the electorate to have a hold over (Salmond’s projected Scotland was not to be armed, only to depend on NATO). As a result, only the new clergy – the bureaucrats and their dependent chatteratti – will have any idea where the strings really are. Electorates will survive as an ornament. If you read back to Jean Monnet, or even figures such as William Beveridge or Arnold Toynbee back in the 1940s, you’d see that this was the thought all along. Down with the civic nation and its clear boundaries. Up with the new Holy Roman empire. You’d think Orwell’s monstrous ‘inner party’ was about some Stalinist executioners; but when you read the book carefully, you realize that it’s actually the academic, media and managerial elites of our own familiar societies. This is their horizon.

  • Andrew Allison

    The proposition that “A better educated and more sophisticated population is less willing to delegate important decisions to technocrats.” is debatable. The fact that more people are being educated doesn’t make them better educated; if anything the reverse appears to be the case. Would anybody really argue that today’s graduate (high school or college) is better educated than that of a generation ago when fully a third of of today’s college entrants require remedial courses in the basics of reading, English or math? If anything, the Scottish referendum shows a lack of sophistication in that almost half the population failed to see than the ability of the country to stand alone was grossly misrepresented by the SNP. It’s also worth noting that the increased devolution resulting from the referendum was pried from the claws of the centralized bureaucracy only by the imminent threat of independence. No bureaucracy will willingly cede power.

    • Pete

      “The fact that more people are being educated doesn’t make them better educated; …”

      Better said, Andrew, would be “that more people being ‘schooled’ and credentialed doesn’t make them more educated. ”

      I tell you brother, I met many boobs with a Ph.D. who wave their degrees around in the hope it might mask their innate stupidity and inability to think logically..

    • Josephbleau

      “The fact that more people are being educated doesn’t make them better educated” ? I sure hope it does! The fact is that there is still a distribution of intelligence over the population. In earlier years only the upper tail engaged with the academics of high school and few went to college, there were other jobs for the rest, many very smart people in the prewar years who were not “Society” refused to go to college because they did not want to be a smartypants. Starting with the the GI Bill and the goal of giving everyone a college education we have 50% attending and it is going to be very difficult for them to graduate unless standards are lowered. A 110 to 115 IQ is often stated as a requirement to do successful college work. This is not to say that the full population won’t get some kind of benefit from matriculation, just somewhat less, thus the remediation which will be a good and helpful part of the education as offered. If students are taught that high school is low class and college is stylish they may get more good out of remedial classes (inefficient of course.) We have to end such thinking as “If everyone went to Harvard everyone would be a CEO or academic.” No matter how many attend college only the smartest fraction and the connected reach the top, “___” Studies programs offer less, what makes me really sad is to see the poor kids who think they are doing the right thing struggling to keep a 2.0 in flaccid coursework paying a lot of money, and when they drop or graduate there is nothing for them, even though they must be better educated than they were.

      • Andrew Allison

        With respect, I beg to differ. Of course there’s a distribution of intelligence, which is why so many of today’s college students shouldn’t be! As you point out, in the past only the upper tail engaged with the academics of high school and few went to college. Restated, those who went to college could benefit from it. That’s no longer the case.
        I wholeheartedly agree that the much greater participation of women in post-secondary education (I’ve heard that they now form a majority) has been a very good thing, but that has nothing to do with the overall level of education which, by any measure has declined.

  • Pete

    ” …and practicality that has made Great Britain the envy of all the world. ”

    Hold your horses, Mead. I don’t envy Britain and know few who do.

    Get out of your east coast ivory tower once in a while and mingle with the real people who make America what it is instead of the effeminate elite who you hang with. .

  • wigwag

    Professor Mead is exactly right; large is out and small is the next big thing. The defining theme of the last decades of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st century is disintermediation. To put it more colloquially, the middle man is being crushed; it doesn’t matter if that middle man is a travel agent, publisher, long distance phone company, stock broker, music industry executive, newspaper or pimp. Soon, it won’t matter if that middle man is an electric utility, college professor, network television executive or cell phone carrier; they are all ripe for the picking. They will all die.

    Mead is prescient; he sees the writing on the wall. Government’s massive regulatory role is also sure to fall victim to this unstoppable force. Already government regulators throughout the world are giving up in despair; they may hate UBER, LYFT and AIRBNB but despite their best efforts the regulators can’t stand up to the massive popularity that these innovations inspire. We see the same thing happening in the world of public education, Americans on the left and the right are uniting to oppose government mandated educational schemes like the Common Core. My guess is that in the next few years we will even see venerable government regulators like the Food and Drug Administration come under withering attack. Over a decade ago, Congress placed supplements and vitamins outside of the FDA’s regulatory purview. How long will it be before people begin to wonder whether the dearth of new medicines that we have seen in the past few years has anything to do with the extraordinary costs and bureaucratic red tape that the FDA introduces to the process of drug discovery.

    Its not really about whether the regulatory apparatus of the Government is exercised at the Federal, State or local level; it’s about whether the regulatory process is adding value or subtracting value. Just as people can use the internet to form their own opinions about the best treatment options available for whatever medical condition they may have, the internet will provide people with the opportunity to forge their own opinions about what products are safe, effective and worth the money.

    The disintermediation revolution actually provides a wonderful opportunity to heal America’s political divisions and completely change the nature of our civic discourse. While there are some issues that the left and the right will never agree on (gun control, abortion, cultural issues, etc.) there are actually major areas of violent agreement between the left and the right. As I mentioned, both hate the Common Core; it’s only American elites in both political parties who are invested in moving the Common Core forward. The left and the right were both intensely disgusted by the behavior of financial executives and the firms they lead during the recent economic disaster. Neither the left or the right is enamored with the massive wave of government snooping,

    While Im no fan of his, Ralph Nader’s most recent book is really quite interesting. Before long a politician is going to come along who realizes that there is a unique opportunity to unite the left and the right in a common purpose. If that politician is agile enough, he or she will be able to craft an unstoppable political movement.

    The argument about whether the government is our enemy or our friend is simply anachronistic; the argument for the 21st century is what can government do well and what responsibilities that it used to undertake are no longer necessary.

    For those who think that the left will never accept the idea of lesser government, they should think back to the 1970s when the left’s credo came from the title of a book written by the British economist, E.F. Schumacher. The title of that book was “Small is Beautiful.”

    Small is beautiful and its becoming more beautiful every day. Disintermediation has changed the landscape of the American economy. It’s bound to change the landscape of American politics before very long.

    • FriendlyGoat

      You should have been a fan of Ralph Nader. It’s true that he should not have run for president with the effect of helping George W. Bush, but Nader as a theoretician has been right and ahead of his time about many things.

  • Angel Martin

    i actually think this is a more significant win for status quo political institutions than most people realize.

    the elected politicians and political institutions in all advanced democracies are supposedly facing voter anger and distrust.

    Scotland had an opportunity, in effect, to vote out an unpopular 307 year incumbency. Instead, they chose to accept promises of change from politicians they supposedly don’t trust, and re-elected the Union by 55%.

    i think it is a remarkable result.

  • Anthony

    “Effective devolution is likely to be most important political and administrative task that advance countries need to solve.”

    The problems WRM infer in his essay have become much more complex over time as he rightly refers to. The problems are local, national, sovereign, global, etc. and may be interconnected across many areas of commerce, politics, policy, innovation, etc. To my mind, underlying WRM’s emphasis on devolution (or his earlier term disintermediation) is 21st century technology facilitating “mobilization of expertise” that compels transformation impacting human arrangements (behavior) world-wide. The reaction thereto, though varied, up to now has seen Arab Springs, Arab Winters, Mid East contretemps, Russian revanchism, China Rising, Scotland, etc. etc. etc. In any event, is subsidiarity/devolution an answer or part of progression as societies seek stasis in transforming world?

    Crosscutting challenges face us here in America but also globally and devolution may be only a beginning response to WRM’s “important and administrative task that advance countries need to solve.” I agree the bureaucratic centralization of traditional governments is no longer completely functional for today’s societal arrangements (technical and social). Relatedly, WigWag is right (despite historical left looking to Washington to impose its will on the entire country) there exist areas of accommodation regarding public policy and politics to exploit between left and right (Nader does provide examples deserving a thought).

    Necessarily, this discussion about effective devolution, disintermediation, and subsidiarity with all its complexity and transformation brings to mind the Millennials. In my opinion, it is they who embody the imponderables yet to be balanced – as they have the longer time horizon than other adults in the society. It is they world-wide who will directly or indirectly get us on the right track (given that the pace of change accelerates these days because the spread of ideas is so much faster than in past). Devolution brings high societal responsibility and as stewards we must fight tendency to revert to old habits as immediate response to transforming change.

  • FriendlyGoat

    Would we be wrong to notice that most of the people in America who want to secede seem to be conservatives who believe America’s national government is too liberal? And in Scotland it seemed to be the opposite?

    • LarryD

      Oh there has been quite a bit of talk from the American left about secession, when they aren’t in charge.
      It’s not about which side of the aisle you sit, it’s about whether or not you trust the people in charge. With the political classes increasingly arrogant and contemptuous (at best) towards the people they govern, there is no surprise that central governments have lost trust.

      The current administration has been undermining all claims of competency and integrity of the political class. They are the most effective argument for small government that has come out for generations.

      • FriendlyGoat

        Call me quaint, but I think it IS “about which side of the aisle (we) sit on. The “political class” includes the Republican House, the five Catholic males of the Supreme Court and the Senate followers of Mitch McConnell. But conservatives want to secede from Obama as though he is the whole government.

  • richard10934

    Devolution is just another name for Federalism. We’re going in the opposite direction, with predictable results. & few of these, if any, are positive. The easy answer for most of the 20th Century was more government (or as I like to say, “more pesticides, please!”). This has not proved to be an elegant solution, to say the least.

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