When it comes to building major public works at improbable speed, China has history.
For instance, it took Emperor Yang Guang’s engineers (and five million workers) just five years to complete the 1,800km-long Grand Canal. That was 1,400 years ago but Chinese construction is still known for getting things done – and fast. Not for China the endless delays and cost overruns of the Channel Tunnel or Boston’s ‘Big Dig’. Until now.
In fact, it’s an addition to the ancient Grand Canal that is posing the latest risk to the nation’s reputation for rapid action. The plan to extend it 230km down to the sea, is starting to look downright quixotic. Officials began the project in 1995 but 15 years later it’s $650 million over budget (and counting). And its completion is nowhere in sight.
The Grand Canal has transported grain (and soldiers) to the capital from the south for over a thousand years. Usage has declined in modern times in favour of road and rail. A connection to the sea at the port city of Ningbo was supposed to give it a new lease on life.
So why can’t today’s officials match the pace set during the Sui dynasty?
The project received its first major blow in 1998, when its leader and champion, Xu Yunhong, was arrested on corruption charges. He will emerge from prison this year, and will likely be surprised that the canal has barely got any further in the years he spent behind bars. One reason is that officials in charge decided that the original design, to accommodate 300 tonne ships, had to be modified. “The Ministry of Communication indicated that only a design for a Grade IV channel [large enough for 500 tonne ships] would get financial support from the state,” a source familiar with the project told the Southern Weekend.
That required a whole new round of departmental approvals, and this time the Maritime Administration wasn’t willing to sign on. If 500 tonne ships were going to use the canal, it wanted a 7 metre high clearance.
“Since Jiefang Bridge upstream of Xinjiang Bridge only has a clearance of 4m, Yongfeng Bridge has a clearance of 5m, and Yaojiang River has eight power cables with a clearance of less than 7m – they can’t meet the national standard,” explained Wang Xiaomin, an official with the Maritime Administration. “We had to order changes before boats could be allowed in.”
Those aren’t changes the Ningbo government thinks it can afford. “The cost is so high, it is unimaginable,” one official told Southern Weekend. “Widening the channel requires acquiring additional land [and] raising the bridges requires a redesign”.
Right now, work has only started on the first of three sections of construction. The project’s engineers are still awaiting the approvals needed for the second section to go ahead.
But the biggest obstacle is the project’s final leg. The plan entails digging a canal through a major suburb of Ningbo, which could add another $1 billion to the final bill. It’s leading city officials to question whether the benefits of a little extra freight traffic are really worth all the hassle.
In fact, plenty of Ningbo’s bureaucrats prefer to focus their attention on the construction of a new $3.7 billion subway system. That new canal project no longers seems quite so Grand, either in design or in achievement…
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