Making rivers run north

By Xuyang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2011-6-28 19:40:00

Villagers in Hubei Province get ready to relocate to make way for the water diversion project last August.  Photo: CFP

Recent reports indicating renewed interest in starting construction on the controversial western leg of China’s mega water diversion project, have raised deep concerns from environmentalists, engineers and local residents.
Wang Guangqian, a hydrologist at Tsinghua University, said he and other experts were asked to report on various proposals for the western route. “[We] thought this wouldn’t happen for 50 years but it’s necessary now,” Wang told a roundtable discussion hosted by the China Science Media Center. 

The South-North Water Diversion Project is a controversial and mammoth undertaking that will bring water from the south to help meet the needs of the more arid north.  It was first proposed after China’s liberation in 1949 as a solution to southern floods and northern droughts. 

The eastern and central legs of the project got the go-ahead last decade and are expected to bring water to Beijing and Tianjin before the middle of this decade. 

The western route, however, is still on the drawing board because it is far more technically challenging and poses far greater environmental risks, say experts in the field. 

“They can’t provide sufficient scientific proof of its feasibility,” said Yang Yong, an independent geologist who has spent 20 years researching every major river in China. “Their grand plans would greatly alter the ecological system and the distribution of water resources in China, and there are major technical and engineering difficulties,” said Yang. 

Wang stands by his pet proposal for a western route. His plan would divert water from the Yarlung Tsangpo River in Tibet by constructing thousands of kilometers of canals and pipelines along the Qinghai-Tibet railway to reach the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the northwest. “This is feasible,” Wang told the First Financial Daily.

Wang is not the only engineer to propose diverting water from Tibet. Guo Kai, a self-educated hydrologist, wants to divert water from a river that runs into northern India. “So much of the water in the Yarlung Tsangpo runs out of China, it’s a huge waste,” said Guo, who has been pushing his plan since the 1980s. 

His proposal would divert more than 2 trillion cubic meters of water every year and stream it through mountain tunnels and pipelines that would finally feed into the Yellow River more than 3,000 kilometers away. 
Outdated ideas push megaprojects 

Ambitious plans such as Wang and Guo’s have attracted a lot of detractors. Many think their plans are actually dangerous. 

“The idea that people can change nature any way they want is ridiculous,” said Fan Xiao, an engineer at the Sichuan Bureau of Geological Exploration of Mineral Resources. “This way of thinking comes from the old belief that humans can conquer nature,” said Fan. 

Many experts agree that is precisely the philosophy behind the entire South-North Water Diversion Project, which has been studied for decades and won government approval in 2002. 

According to the approved plan, the eastern route will divert water from the lower Yangtze to Beijing along the ancient Grand Canal. The central route will take water from the Hanjiang River, a tributary of the Yangtze, and bring it 1,400 kilometers to Beijing and Tianjin. 

The non-yet-underway western route was originally expected to divert 17 billion cubic meters of water each year from the upper reaches of the Yangtze in Sichuan Province to nourish the country’s parched provinces and regions in the northwest.

Trillions of yuan 

The project’s website says the construcion of the three routes will cost 5 trillion yuan and ultimately bring 44.8 billion cubic meters of water from the south to north every year. The project is not expected to be fully completed until the middle of the century but water should begin to flow north to Beijing in the next two or three years, notes the website. 

The State Council appears to have recently given the project a higher priority. It announced at the beginning of the year that construction of the eastern and central routes will be accelerated and pre-construction studies on the western route would begin “when appropriate.” 

The Yellow River Conservancy Commission, which oversees projects along the much-diminished river, has been working for decades on the feasibility of diverting water from southern rivers along the western route. Every plan has met with controversy. 

“It’s irrational to push through such large hydro projects,” said Wang Yongchen, a water conservation advocate who has investigated the water resources along the upper reaches of the Yangtze. “We should have stopped the water diversion project a long time ago,” she said. 

The two routes currently under construction have also been plagued with controversies. 

There are fears that water flowing along the eastern route will be so polluted after passing through industrial areas that by the time it reaches Beijing it will be very costly to treat. 

Along the central route tens of thousands of people have been forced to move to make way for huge reservoirs that are needed to allow water to flow north. There are also worries the Hanjiang River’s water resources are not nearly plentiful enough to meet projected needs. 

The most favored western route is supposed to draw water from the Tongtian, Yalong and Dadu rivers, which run through Sichuan and Qinghai provinces. If successful that water would open huge new tracts of land to cultivation in the dry northwest in Gansu Province and the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

Competing megaprojects

Another serious, unresolved issue is the competing plans for the water resources of the Yangtze. The southern provinces want to build more than a dozen hydropower dams along the upper reaches of the Yangtze that would provide electricity for the region’s burgeoning industrial and urban growth. The local dams would stem the flow of water and make water diversion impossible. 

Critics say both the damming and diversion projects have failed to consider a key factor.

“The Yangtze River is also drying up and yet people are still fighting over water resources,” said Yang, the independent geologist who has led teams of researchers to areas that would be affected by the western route in 2006, 2007 and 2009. 

He said his research shows the western route would damage the fragile ecosystem in the upper Yangtze region which is susceptible to earthquakes and mudslides. Winter freeze-over also reduces the flow of the rivers and would prevent the diversion project from ever meeting its target, said Yang.

Villagers in Xichuan county, Henan Province relocating in June. Photo: CFP

Engineering obstacles 

Yang’s views and research have a lot of support, especially from experts from areas where the water is sourced.  “The construction and maintenance costs would be too great and there’s no guarantee that the project would operate smoothly,” said Fan the government engineer from Sichuan.

“There are also many engineering obstacles and they will need to raise water levels by building reservoirs, dams and tunnels,” said Fan. 

There’s also a huge social cost to consider, warned Fan, as a number of the required dams and reservoirs would need to be built in areas populated by Tibetans. 

“Major grazing areas would by submerged, and that will affect the livelihood of herders. The natural environment is also regarded as holy by local Tibetans,” said Fan.

Continuing to search for a way around the complicated technical, environmental and social issues is not what environmentalists want to see. They say these efforts only cloud the real causes of water shortages. 

Instead of building ever larger megaprojects, many experts say the focus should be on water conservation. 

“We need to ask why is there a water shortage?” said Fan. “Inefficient water use is still a major issue.” 

Yang believes that adjusting human behavior rather than attempting to change the flow of rivers, is likely to produce more environmentally sound results. “We can try to fix things from this perspective, instead of resorting to huge projects every time we have a drought or some other disasters.” 

Clear signal needed

Environmentalists are also frustrated  because the government hasn’t yet provided a clear signal on the larger issues. 

“In China, decisions on major projects are usually political and so the feasibility studies don’t matter much,” said Fan. “It’s hard to tell whether the western route will eventually go through,” he said. 

“Right now the whole situation is a mess,” concludes Yang, adding that the central government should look at the big picture when making decisions. “The development of hydroelectricity, hydro engineering and resource-driven industries should be taken as a whole,” he said. 

“The special interests and power struggles between departments or local governments make the situation very complicated,” said Yang. “The decision makers are not giving a clear signal to show where we should go from here.”

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