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Water Diversion Blues Rapidly growing cities need more water and plenty of it, but experts say China faces a sobering outlook on the impact of diversion projects

January 18, 2012

Caixin Weekly: China Economics & Finance (Caixin Media)
 January 15, 2012,


By staff reporters Gong Jing and Cui Zheng | 1307 words 

A local government project to channel water from an artificial lake in Zhejiang Province to residents in Hangzhou is already starting to discharge sharply divergent opinions. The water diversion project, estimated to cost 20 billion yuan, will affect water supplies to Hangzhou, a city celebrated as the "Paradise of China" for its beautiful water-side settings. In recent years, numerous large-scale water diversion projects have begun in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, famous for their abundant water supplies. The Pearl River Delta, China's rainiest region, has followed suit. However the increasing use of such projects to address severe water scarcity issues throughout China is raising questions over the potential long-term impact on the environment and local economies. In Northern China, there are even more water diversion projects. In provinces along the Yellow River, in the Northeast, and in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei triangle, there are currently dozens of water diversion projects under way. Why has China become the global leader in water diversion in only a few short decades? Cheng Xiaotao, vice chief engineer at the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research, said that the primary reason is rapid urbanization and industrialization. "The Chinese population has grown by seven or eight hundred million people in the past few decades, and that population has surged into urban centers at an unprecedented rate," Cheng said." Now local resources are often insufficient to support local populations." That is also the reason for the water diversion project on Qiandao Lake near Hangzhou. Eighty percent of drinking water in the city is provided by the Qiantang River. Industrial pollution has picked up in recent years in regions along the river. If there a major polluting incident on the river, the drinking water of over eight million Hangzhou residents could be jeopardized. The first city to start drying out was Beijing. Two reservoirs were built there between 1951 and 1958, one on the Yongding River and one on the Chaobao River. But the water from these two rivers was insufficient for the capital's growing population. So for the past 10 years, Beijing has been diverting water from Hebei Province. In the coming years, the city government plans to drain water from the Yellow River divert to the capital. Tianjin also has a history of water diversion projects. As Beijing and Tianjin began taking from the Yellow River, many other provinces along the river, including Qinghai, Shaanxi and Henanhave followed suit. But now the Yellow River can barely stand the burden of all the projects. So the Chinese government has decided to borrow water from the Yangtze River. Weng Lida, former director of the Yangtze River Water Resources Protection Bureau has his own view. He said that once the rivers of the North China Plain are dry, then officials will divert the Yellow River. Once the Yellow River is dry, they'll divert the Yangtze River. 

Large scale water diversion projects usually cause problems down the water chain everywhere. "If they keep on diverting water like this, I have no idea when it will ever end." Cheap water diversion projects cost around 1 billion yuan. Expensive ones can run into the tens of billions. While the Great South-North Water Diversion Project will end up costing hundreds of billions. One hydropower expert said that "China spares no expense and disregards the intangible costs of these water diversion projects." Many scholars have criticized the government for throwing economic common sense out the window. These projects are funded by provincial and prefectural governments of areas that will benefit from the water. Those governments do not need to pay anything to the areas from which the water is taken. They are not even required to pay reparations for damage to the environment. It is because the water itself is free that so many places decide that it makes economic sense to build water diversion works. In reality though, the residents of these places cannot afford to use the water they divert to themselves. The usual cost for water is less than three yuan per cubic meter.

 "If you add up construction costs, extraction costs and environmental reparations, it is perfectly reasonable to estimate the cost of diverted water in the several tens of yuan per cubic meter. When you take water from across drainage deltas, you're looking at some exorbitantly expensive water," said one industry insider who asked not to be named. Decades of intense water diversion have wreaked havoc on the environment. Environmentalists around the world say that no more than 30 percent of a river should be drawn off, lest the local ecology suffer gravely. The North China river system, including the Yongding and Chaobai, is now full of dry river beds and pollution after supplying water to Beijing, Tianjin and other cities. Diversion projects in recent decades on the Yellow River have reduced the amount of its flow into the ocean to less than 20 billion cubic meters a year, down from over 50 billion cubic meters in the 1950s. By total volume, over 70 percent of the Yellow River's water is siphoned off. As a result, the nitrogen to phosphorous ratio in the Bohai Sea has grown dangerously unbalanced. In 2008, the N:P ratio of Bohai seawater was 67. On the Bohai seafloor, on the Laizhou Bay floor, and near to the coast of Liaoning, the N:P ratio was over 200. It is generally believed that a ratio of over 50 is hazardous to the ocean ecology. In years past, the Bohai Sea was the fishery of Northern China. Now almost no fish are caught there at all, and many of its species have gone extinct.

 Many academics have pointed out the potential ecological calamity of diverting water out of the Han River, the key tributary to the Yangtze River. Once the water levels drop, it is believed that pollution levels in the water will sharply rise, and many species of fish may die out. They also point out that reducing the levels of the Yangtze could exacerbate the problem of inland saltwater intrusion. This would severely affect Shanghai's drinking water and possibly cause a groundwater crisis. Zhu Chunquan, director of the World Wide Fund for Nature (China)'s Freshwater Program, said that in order to really solve water supply problems, it's most important to first protect local water resources.Diversion on a large scale, says Zhu, will inevitably alter the river's flow, bio-diversity and relationship with the larger river network. 

Jamie Pittock, director of the WWF Global Freshwater Program, said in a report that it is becoming common around the world to take water from one river and put it into another river that's lacking. But to think that this kind of one-off project can solve the problem forever is a "pipe dream." One hydropower expert said that some cities really are desperately in need of water, and that local governments think of water diversion as a cure-all. When their reservoirs run low, they don't even consider conservation but rather jump straight to diversion. When the water is polluted, they don't blame the polluters but again jump straight to water diversion. "Diversion has become the solution to every problem. Once they divert that water over, they go right back to their old crude development models." The residents of the areas receiving diverted water have never cultivated a mentality of water conservation. There aren't enough legal restrictions, and the price of water is too low. Thus nobody values what is diverted to them. "Both the people and businesses of northern cities waste water just like their counterparts in the South. The mayor of Beijing, the cities most in need of water in all of China, is endlessly concerned about water shortages, yet the people of Beijing have never experienced any disturbance to the water supply," said the hydropower expert. Cheng Xiaotao said that water diversion is one method used to solve immediate water supply problems, but that it should be carefully implemented. It must be done with open eyes and in moderation. 
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