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China to divert flows of its rivers

January 18, 2012

Moscow Times 12 January 2012 

This year, China will spend over 10 billion U.S. dollars to divert the flows of its rivers in the direction of the arid areas in its north. This was announced by E Jingping, head of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project commissioned by the State Council. It must be said in the past few years that China has spent about 22 billion U.S. dollars on this project, which has been compared to the Great Wall of China in grandiosity. Late Chairman Mao Zedong first put forward the idea of the river diversion project in 1951. At the time, he said that there was ample water in the south but little in the north. It would be helpful if the south lent some water to the north. The Water Resources Ministry took the Chinese leader's idea as a guideline for action and embarked on a plan to implement it. However, some time later, the Chinese leaders shifted priorities to other projects. As a result, the process dragged on for years. Only in 2002, after years-long droughts, the plan was adopted. It provided for the construction of canals running along Western, Central and Eastern routes. 

As the year 2010 approached, it became clear that the project was far from completion. The Central route which will be completed in 2014, while the Eastern route in 2013. The work on the Western route which involves building massive dams and tunnels has not started yet. South-East Asian countries flatly oppose the diversion of the water from the River Mekong, whose headstreams are located in China. The reason the project has been put on hold is the delay in resettling 330,000 people who live along the Central route. "Any plan that interferes with the nature is dangerous from environmental point of view," says head of the Yabloko Party's Greens faction Alexei Yablokov, a Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. "These plans might be effective for some time but will produce unfavourable consequences in 20-40 years. The government will in fact have to spend much more cash than what the project will yield the first few years after the implementation," Alexei Yablokov said. 

The head of the "Greenpeace Russia's" energy programme Vladimir Chuprov, on his part, recalled that there was a similar project in the Soviet Union. It was designed to fill the Aral Sea and irrigate Central Asia by diverting water from Siberian rivers. It was not implemented because the country broke up. "It's very unfortunate that dozens of billions of dollars are being spent on outdated technology, and this doesn't make sense," says Vladimir Chuprov. "New technology would make it possible to implement this task at a lower cost. Israel does not build canals worth billions of dollars but water is brought directly to its plants. The U.S. is doing the same in Arizona. China should make use of new technologies rather than needlessly waste huge sums of money," he added. According to Vladimir Chuprov, blocking the River Amur to build a hydropower station would also be dangerous. Because of China's usage of water taken from the River Argun, the border tributary of the River Amur, the water level in the Argun River basin has fallen sharply. As a result, the Zabaikalsky district is drying up, and the Dauria reserve is on the brink of an environmental disaster. The common usage of water resources in border regions should be approved by an international commission, says the ecologist. China's Water Resources Ministry insists that at present, 700 million people in the country drink polluted water, and this has triggered unrest in rural areas. After the planned diversion of water, this problem is expected to be solved. The scale of environmental damage that could incur is well known but this is a question of survival for a lot of people, says the Ministry. Meanwhile, Chinese ecologists say that large projects of this kind are a niche for corruption. They regret the fate of the River Yangtze, which, according to their forecasts, will dry up in 30 years.
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