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China Plans to Reroute Part of River

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/09/10; September 10, 2001.]

The Associated Press, Sun 9 Sep 2001.

HUAIAN, China (AP) - For as long as Wang Cunhong can remember, the brown-green waters of the Grand Canal have flowed south past his barge home, toward the mighty Yangtze River.

Now, the 46-year-old oarsman points to where massive pumps will push the water north for the first time since this stretch of the canal in the eastern province of Jiangsu was built by Chinese emperors 2,500 years ago.

"They're going to turn the water around," Wang said as he guided his dinghy past a row of moored barges. "It's a huge undertaking."

Reversing the Grand Canal is just part of what could be the largest construction project ever undertaken.

The plan calls for drawing off a big portion of the Yangtze, the world's third-largest river, at three different points and sending it to China's drought-stricken north via massive aqueducts.

The trio of man-made rivers will carry 12.6 trillion gallons of water a year - enough to fill New York City's taps for a quarter century. Only a tenth as much water flows through the next-largest water diversion project, in California.

The sheer scale harkens back to the megaprojects of imperial China and the heyday of communist central planning. But even in the home of the 1,500-mile Great Wall, the scheme is raising eyebrows. Some question if such a gargantuan project is needed - or even wise.

"A water diversion on this scale will permanently alter the environment. It could change the ecosystem and the social fabric of entire provinces," said Shen Xiaoli, an engineer in the Hubei provincial government. Shen said in his province in central China alone, 290,000 people will be moved to make way for the project.

There are no figures on total relocations; estimates vary between 400,000 and more than a million.

First proposed by revolutionary leader Mao Tse-tung in the 1950s, the diversion was shelved due to cost. But that was before a growing economy and population plunged China into a water crisis - and gave it money to pursue a giant-size solution.

"Only by bringing into full play the advantage of the socialist system in concentrating power will this diversion be possible," said Chen Bangzhu, a former trade minister who's become a government spokesman for the project.

Beijing estimates the country will suffer an annual water shortfall of 53 trillion gallons by 2030. That's more than all the factories and households in China today consume in a year.

Most of the gap will be in the north, which has half the country's 1.26 billion people but only one-fifth of its water.

Fights have already broken out between villages over scarce water sources, with some building dams to hoard streams. Overuse has drained so much water from the Yellow River, China's second-longest, that it has failed to reach the sea for part of almost every year since 1985.

China's national legislature approved the diversion in March. The Cabinet is expected to give the final go-ahead this summer, lawmakers said.

Construction could begin as soon as this year. Along the northern two-thirds of the 1,200-mile Grand Canal, older than the Great Wall and considered a wonder of the ancient world, 15 enormous pump stations will be built to push water uphill to Tianjin, a major port near Beijing.

A second route through central China will require digging a large trench 773 miles long - about the distance from the Mississippi River to Washington, D.C. En route to Beijing it will pass under the Yellow River in a five-mile tunnel.

The most difficult third route - cutting through some of the world's tallest mountains near Tibet - will stay on the drawing boards for at least another decade.

The government says completing the whole diversion will take 50 years and cost $15 to $20 billion. But officials concede the price could end up exceeding the $24 billion Three Gorges Dam in central China, currently the world's costliest construction project. Foreign companies are expected to get a bit role, mainly as consultants and engineers.

Higher water prices for urban users will cover a fraction of the bill. Beijing says it will end up paying the rest, spreading costs over the project's half-century lifespan.

Conservationists say an infatuation with megaprojects has made Chinese leaders overlook simpler, cheaper solutions.

Liang Congjie, the founder of China's first nongovernment environmental group, said fixing leaky pipes and improving irrigation methods could reap tremendous savings. So could raising water prices from their current 0.05 cents per gallon, less than one-twelfth of what Americans and many Europeans pay. "Water in China is too cheap. People feel no need to conserve," he said.

But a World Bank researcher calculates that even if northern China saves every drop, shortfalls will reach 11 trillion gallons a year by 2050.

"The south-north diversion is enough to wipe out this shortage. China's problem is solvable," said Daniel Gunaratnam, a water expert in the global lender's Beijing office who made the forecast using computer modeling.

Once built, China faces another challenge in keeping the water clean. Dumping of untreated sewage and raw industrial waste has made water from the Grand Canal unsafe to drink, even when boiled.

"I hope the south-north diversion makes the water cleaner," says 66-year-old Li Jia, whose two-room hut on a bank of the waterway overlooks where Wang Cunhong, the oarsman, ferries rice, fuel and people among barges. "Our water used to be clean."

Then there's the threat of biological invasion: microbes and larger organisms from the Yangtze wiping out native northern species. Drawing off as much as a twelfth of the Yangtze's annual flow may have other unintended consequences, such as allowing sea water to seep into the water supply of Shanghai, China's largest city, sitting near the river's mouth.

"We just don't know what will happen when building on this scale," said Vaclav Smil, an expert on China's water problems at the University of Manitoba in Canada.

"Once you put in something so large, you can't go back."


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