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China Slows Water Project
China Slows Water Project
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South-to-North Plan Faces 4-Year Delay on Impact Concerns
By SHAI OSTER
Wall Street Journal. DECEMBER 31, 2008
BEIJING -- China is delaying part of its plan to divert billions of
tons of water to its parched north, amid concerns that the massive
project could cause previously unexpected environmental damage.
The four-year delay affects the central of three sections of the
controversial "South-to-North" water diversion project. The project is
designed to move water from China's central and southern regions up to
the arid northern provinces -- in some cases hundreds of kilometers
away along three man-made channels.
The total project, at an estimated $62 billion, is expected to cost
nearly three times the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest dam, and
to take decades to complete. It is expected to require the relocation
of some 300,000 people and, when finished, to carry a volume of water
along its eastern, central and western routes that's more than half of
California's annual consumption.
The eastern route, which mostly follows the ancient Grand Canal, is
largely done. The mountainous western route, which is the most
controversial and technically challenging, isn't slated for completion
until 2050. The central section was supposed to start operation in
2010, but officials now say it will be launched in 2014.
In a written response to questions from The Wall Street Journal, the
South-to-North Water Diversion Office under the State Council, China's
cabinet, confirmed changes in the plan, but said the new timetable
represents an "adjustment," not a delay. "We have taken appropriate
measures to mitigate the environmental adverse effects that the
construction projects may make," the office said. The new measures
include dams that could maintain higher water levels and ways to cut
The government says the South-to-North project is the only way to
solve chronic water shortages. China's water supply relative to its
population is a quarter of the world average ratio, and most of the
water is concentrated in the south. In Beijing, the capital, located
in the north, the ratio is one-thirtieth the world average. The
north's main river, the Yellow River, has temporarily dried up in some
places, and underground aquifers are badly depleted. The
South-to-North project, first proposed by Mao Zedong in 1952, was
approved in 2001.
Critics, mostly scientists and environmentalists, have continued to
voice opposition to the project, fearing it will waste tens of
billions of dollars and damage the environment while offering only a
temporary fix. During 2008, local governments joined in the criticism.
The central stretch of the project runs from the Han River, a Yangtze
River tributary in central China's Hubei Province, north to Beijing.
During December, Zou Qingping, the deputy chief of the Hubei Province
bureau of environmental protection, told the local government that
reducing water in the Han River would worsen pollution, according to
several local media reports. China's state-controlled media was
allowed to report extensively on the controversy, a marked departure
from the strict controls over coverage of the Three Gorges Dam.
The revised plans for the central section, approved during December,
include building a dam and diverting water from the Yangtze River into
the Han. But Du Yun, a geologist with the Institute of Geodesy and
Geophysics at the China Academy of Sciences, said that even those
measures may not be sufficient. His research claims that siphoning off
a third of the water from the Han River's Danjiangkou reservoir, as
the plan calls for, will raise the risk of floods, increase sediment
and worsen water quality -- hurting navigation and irrigation for
local residents, and limiting supplies for industrial and municipal
The new plan doesn't address the more controversial western route,
which would transfer water along canals carved through rock from the
Yangtze headwaters in Tibet to the Yellow River.