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Yangtze Diversion Impact Studied

[South China Morning Post. September 17, 2001.]

Officials Assess Effect on Environment of Ambitious Scheme to Transport Fresh Water to North


Environmental officials are assessing the impact of a controversial project to divert water from the Yangtze River Basin to northern China.

The Vice-Minister of Water Resources, Suo Lisheng, told Xinhua a report on the project would be submitted to the State Council next month for review, and environmental assessment was one of the 12 topics examined.

The report was prepared by experts from the Ministry of Water Resources and other government departments.

"The project will have some impact on the natural environment, but China will undertake reasonable measures which are scientifically viable to keep the damage to the minimum," Mr Suo was quoted as saying by Xinhua yesterday.

The colossal diversion scheme is made up of three routes and involves the construction of thousands of kilometres of canals and aqueducts across the heart of China. The three routes - eastern, central and western - will transport about half of the Yangtze River's fresh water to northern China, which is fast running out. Construction is expected to start next year.

Alongside the mammoth Three Gorges Dam near Yichang in Sichuan province, the diversion project is another ambitious undertaking by the Government to deal with the country's increasingly serious water problem.

Mr Suo said the problem of pollution must be overcome first or the diversion project would mean little. Xinhua said pollution was becoming serious in eastern provinces such as Shandong and Jiangsu and it would be counter-productive if water quality could not be guaranteed.

Mr Suo said the construction cost of the eastern route alone would be about 20 billion yuan (HK$18.6 billion), but the Government might have to spend another 25 billion yuan on treating industrial and household waste water in areas covered by the eastern route.

Environmentalists fear that although China has the technology and expertise to build the diversion scheme, it might not be financially viable. They say the ambitious project will be too expensive for the average consumer after taking into account its overall costs.

The vice-minister did not comment on the financial viability of the project, but indicated the Government might implement a licensing system under which consumers would be required to follow strict guidelines in discharging waste water or risk a fine.

Another issue the officials were studying was the back flow of sea water. Xinhua said the mouth of the Yangtze would be inundated with sea water in dry seasons as there would be a significant drop in the river's level downstream after the diversion project was built. This meant the diversion channels of the eastern route would not be able to draw fresh water.

Experts have put forward several proposals to address the problem, Xinhua said. One involved the use of dozens of lakes in the river mouth area to prevent back flow of sea water during high tides. Another requires a strictly monitored timetable to avoid drawing sea water.

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