China Sees Grand Solution to Its Water Problem

Times Staff Writer

Water is so scarce in this drought-stricken patch of countryside that precipitation is treated like jewels from the sky.

"When it rains, we throw plastic sheets on the ground to catch it as it falls -- we won't let a single drop go to waste," said Lian Jixiang, head of this village in Shandong province in northeastern China.

So little rain has fallen so far this year that authorities are calling it the driest season in five decades. Large stretches of northern China have seen riverbeds turned into grazing grounds and fertile fields reduced to dust bowls.

Not to worry. The Chinese government has a grand plan to change all that, on the scale of the Great Wall, in the spirit of the Great Leap Forward and even more expensive than the Three Gorges Dam.

Officials call it the South to North Water Diversion Project. It would pump water from the plentiful south to the parched north by redirecting streams from the swollen Yangtze to the shrinking Yellow River. Three canals, two of them about 1,000 miles long each, would cross some of the Earth's highest plains and displace hundreds of thousands of residents in order to deliver water to at least 39 major cities and about 50 million people.

Supporters say the mega-project's benefits would far surpass its projected cost of about $60 billion, more than double the initial price tag for the colossal Three Gorges Dam under construction along the Yangtze in south-central China.

"China needs to feed 20% of the world's population on 7% of its arable land. Much of that land lies in the northern part of the country, and it is running dry," said Zhang Ren, a retired Qinghua University engineering professor with a lifelong involvement in the country's water projects. "We have to do this now. We have no other choice."

Unlike the Three Gorges Dam, which touched off a storm of controversy worldwide over its environmental and human effects, this idea has received relatively little publicity. But critics both inside and outside China see a potential white elephant that could create more problems than it solves.

"The whole idea is based on the false assumption that water from the Yangtze is a limitless resource," said Yang Dongping, a member of Friends of Nature, a Beijing-based environmental group. "Why not push for water conservation instead? It's much more cost-effective."

Modest ambitions are not what Beijing's leaders have in mind. Already, officials have funneled billions of dollars into gigantic public works projects that they hope will fuel the Chinese economy and fend off a rising tide of unemployment.

More than the plans to build the world's fastest train, longest bridge, tallest building and highest rail track, the canal project reflects Beijing's unflinching faith in costly engineering solutions to the nation's basic problems.

"It's a way to insulate the government from blame," said Brian Halweil, a researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, based in Washington. "If water scarcity gets worse and farmers begin to protest, the government can hold up the diversion effort as an attempt to solve the problem."

The concept of borrowing water from the south was first envisioned by Mao Tse-tung during the early 1950s, shortly after the Communist revolution. But prohibitive costs and political turmoil stymied the project.

The country, however, has seen an economic boom in recent decades, and it can no longer afford to let water scarcity hamper its growth.

In China, the water available for each person is about one-quarter of the global average. Northern China dips into only about one-fifth of the nation's total supply. Yet it is home to about half the country's 1.3 billion people.

According to the World Bank, water shortages have cost the Chinese an estimated $14 billion in lost industrial output and about $24 billion in potential rural productivity.

In 1972, for the first time in memory, the downstream portion of the Yellow River ran dry for 15 days, with the waters not reaching the sea. Since then, severe drought and overuse have conspired to consistently strain the river's water supply. For more than 200 days in 1997, the river again dried up short of the sea.

Officials say the country's water deficiency could hit the danger limit by 2030, when the population is expected to swell to about 1.6 billion and annual freshwater resources fall to about 1,700 cubic meters a person, one-fifth of what's now available to the average American.

Conservation alone won't be enough to quench a thirst of this magnitude; supporters of the canal project say that's like asking a poor man to get rich by saving money he doesn't have to spare.

But critics argue that much of the water scarcity is human-made. The historically arid north should never have been turned into the country's water-guzzling breadbasket, they say. To counter decades of misguided growth with another muscle-flexing cure amounts to nothing more than an environmental disaster in the making, the critics add.

Of the routes for the three proposed canals, critics point out, the one in the west is too treacherous. It calls for digging tunnels and aqueducts in subzero temperatures and very high altitudes.

The one in the east is too dirty, piggybacking an ancient canal strewn with industrial pollutants that would require massive cleanup efforts.

The middle path demands construction of an underground pipeline, elevation of an existing dam and relocation of about 300,000 people.

"Both the United States and Russia have put off large water-diversion projects because their impact on the environment is too great and they don't solve the fundamental problems," said Wang Weiluo, a Chinese engineer based in Germany who has extensively studied the issue. "Yet China is going ahead with its plans. They rushed it through without much public debate, so few Chinese people know about its downside."

The prospect of access to abundant southern water also sends the wrong message, especially to urban residents, environmentalists say.

"Ask anyone on the street in Beijing, and no one will tell you they are saving water because we face empty reservoirs," said Friends of Nature member Yang, who lives in the Chinese capital. "Now tell them they will be able to drink fresh water from the Yangtze [and] they will worry even less about conservation."

Rapid industrialization and the growing importance of cities have long put the squeeze on China's agricultural water supply. This nation's 900 million farmers could hope to be only secondary beneficiaries of this expensive new enterprise, expected to be completed in stages over the next 50 years.

"To say it will save farmland in the north is very misleading," said Halweil, the Washington-based researcher. "The project is first and foremost going to feed urban water needs. It's questionable whether any water will be left once it has been diverted to the cities."

Here in this desperately thirsty village in Shandong province, not only have most people never heard of the big project, but they won't get any of its water. This dirt-poor region is off the path of the new canals.

"Of course we think it's a good idea, but that water won't touch us," said Lian Shimin, 72, sitting next to a coal furnace in his cold farmhouse. "What good are we farmers if we don't have water?"

This area is part of an old Communist revolutionary base that helped put Mao in power. But village elders say their lives have changed little for the better in the last five decades.

Locating water has always been a struggle. Back in the 1960s, villagers looking for ground water dug 12 wells and found nothing but earth. They hit water on the 13th try and threw up a stone plaque carved with the slogan, "Long Live Chairman Mao."

Today, it's just another deep hole in the ground. The Mao tribute broke in half long ago.

Villagers continued digging, hiring feng shui masters to find the best spot. Still they got nothing.

The current drought is so severe that, last fall, the government donated water to each family. The water is supposed to last about six months; residents say if that supply runs out, they will have to pay for more.

Most crops have shriveled up and died. The best thing to eat in the village is a few heads of cabbage that a guest brought to a village elder as a gift. Everyone else makes do with sweet potato crepes, dry like straw.

Many people in this area are fruit growers who got by selling pears to nearby markets. Not anymore.

"Everything is dead," said Chen Shumei, a peasant chopping down the gnarled branches of a row of ancient pear trees. "My grandfather's grandfather planted them. Now they are dying in my hands. It just breaks my heart."

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