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China Plans to Divert Rivers to Thirsty North

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 00/10/18; October 18, 2000.]


New York Times

BEIJING, Oct. 16 Faced with a growing scarcity of water in its northern cities and farms, China has decided to push ahead with a costly, long-debated plan to divert river waters hundreds of miles across the country, from the rainy south to the thirsty north.

At a recent meeting to discuss the country's development plans, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji strongly endorsed the huge engineering project, describing it as "a major strategic measure" for China's future and calling for construction to begin "as soon as possible," newspapers reported today.

Construction may begin next year, the reports indicate, though the entire scheme, involving three major routes, may take up to 50 years and cost tens of billions of dollars.

The initial two routes, which will use strings of canals and reservoirs to take water from the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River basin, will cost at least $12 billion to build, an official has said, and could be largely completed within 10 years. The waters will be diverted north to the Yellow River, which is so oversubscribed that it runs dry in many years, and to Beijing, Tianjin and other booming cities, where water consumption by industries and households is soaring. Unlike the huge Three Gorges Dam now under construction along the Yangtze, intended to produce power and reduce floods, the river diversion scheme will not require the resettlement of large populations. But its high cost and possible environmental effects have long been subjects of debate.

The third, longer-term part of the plan would divert waters from the upper reaches of the Yangtze system, from mountain zones mainly in Qinghai and Sichuan provinces that have long been the domain of ethnic Tibetans. This part poses the trickiest engineering challenges and also may draw protests from advocates for Tibetan culture, who have already criticized plans to pipe energy resources out of the region.

Mr. Zhu's support is a sign of the government's determination to press ahead, especially since he is regarded as skeptical of the benefits of the Three Gorges Dam project.

An editorial endorsing the south- north diversion appeared today in People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party. It said that 94 percent of the water of the Yangtze River now flows into the sea unused, while river basins to the north, which include 63 percent of China's land, receive only 19 percent of the country's precipitation.

With rapid urbanization and industrial development, as well as the spread of irrigated agriculture, water has become acutely scarce around several cities including Beijing, and conflicts have emerged between urban, industrial and farming needs. "Many rivers have run dry, lakes have dried up and underground reservoirs have been overexploited," the editorial said.

Concern about water scarcity has heightened because of a recent drought in northern regions, which some scientists fear is linked to global climate change.

Critics of the diversion proposals, and some who support the idea as well, have argued that China must first take more aggressive measures to conserve water including higher water prices and more efficient irrigation methods.

"A precondition to the success of the project is that local water supplies must be properly used and stringent conservation measures must be put in place," said Liu Changming, a water resources expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. "This project can only be a supplement to local water resources."

As the project goes ahead, Mr. Liu said, a host of complex technical, economic and environmental issues will have to be resolved, including how to distribute the new supplies among competing regions and users.

Mr. Zhu, as he endorsed the plan, called for strong efforts to conserve water and to prevent pollution and other environmental damages. But the accompanying editorial said conservation measures alone could not solve the shortage and called the project a "pressing necessity."

Potential environmental dangers include an intrusion of salt water up the Yangtze as its flow is reduced, threatening wildlife and farming and problems of waterlogging and salinity in some lands receiving new flows. Some of the diverted waters may also be polluted by the time they reach the north, experts say.

According to the plans, which have been discussed for decades but more intensely developed over the last year, an eastern route will bring water from near the mouth of the Yangtze to the Tianjin area, partly using the old Grand Canal, which was built in imperial times to transport goods. Early phases of this project could start sending water part of the way within two years, said Zhang Guangdou, a former deputy president of Qinghua University.

The middle route would initially carry water from an existing reservoir on the Han River, a Yangtze tributary, north to the Yellow River, Beijing and Tianjin. Later, water might also be tapped from the new lake that will form behind the Three Gorges Dam. The first phase of the western route, drawing waters from upper tributaries of the Yangtze to aid parched northwestern provinces like Ningxia, Inner Mongolia and Shanxi, may not be completed until 2030, Mr. Zhang estimated, with a second trunk done 20 years after that. Further studies will be required, he said in a speech reprinted in today's People's Daily, before two more rivers that flow into China can be tapped inside Tibet.

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