Troubled waters

Drought refuels debates on a mega water-diversion project

Pails w

Drought-stricken Henan province says no to ice bucket challenge

ch has gone global. But in China the ice bucket challenge has taken a novel twist.

Last week, a group of Henan residents were photographed wearing T-shirts which proclaimed, “Henan please say no to the ice bucket challenge.” To illustrate their point, they posed for photos holding empty red buckets.

The demonstrators were trying to draw attention to the impact of Henan’s worst drought in 53 years, which has severely curtailed this year’s harvest. And they succeeded in their mission. Their photo was soon being forwarded on the internet, provoking renewed debate about the merits of China’s largest-ever engineering project, the South-North Water Diversion (SNWD).

Locals are suspicious of the project, believing that one of their most scarce resources is being diverted to allow pampered Beijingers to continue to enjoy a better quality of life. Or as Xinhua puts it, “Everywhere we hear people saying that drought-stricken areas shouldn’t be supplying water just so people in Beijing can flush the toilet.”

Not so, says Yang Biantong, spokesman for Henan’s Flood Control and Drought Relief programme. In an interview with the People’s Daily, he made the opposite case, suggesting the SNWD will in fact bring extra water to Henan and improve its resistance to drought.

The argument cuts to the heart of one of China’s most pressing problems – it does not have enough water and where it is available, it is often in the ‘wrong’ part of the country.

In terms of freshwater reserves China has 410 cubic metres of water per person compared with 1,583 cubic metres per head in the United States (although as California’s shortages show, the US has regional water problems too). But in parts of China, the situation is as bad as the Middle East. Even in normal circumstances, Henan has access to just 218 cubic metres of water per person, only a little above the 201 cubic metres per head in the Palestinian Territories.

As China Water Risk, a Hong Kong think tank, points out, China’s northern provinces hold 23% of the country’s water reserves, but are responsible for 40% of its industrial output and encompass 64% of its agricultural land. In six provinces and municipalities, there is now a growing deficit between reserves and requirements: in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Ningxia, Hebei and Jiangsu.

The problems in the three biggest cities exemplify another major challenge. Urban residents use far more water than their rural counterparts – not just because they flush the toilet more often, but also because they are developing more varied and sophisticated culinary tastes. Another telling China Water Risk factoid shows that a single 8oz steak requires 3,500 litres of virtual water (the ‘hidden’ flow of water required to move food from one place to another) to produce, for instance. That’s the equivalent of 17 bathtubs, full to the brim.

In Beijing in particular, an ever-growing population is running up against dwindling water reserves. The city was originally picked as the Chinese capital partly because of its proximity to water resources, but more than 21 rivers have now run dry locally and 2,650 square metres of land have sunk because of depleted groundwater.

The SNWD project is supposed to soothe some of Beijing’s growing thirst. At a cost of $79 billion and counting, it has cost even more than the Three Gorges Dam. It is also the world’s largest and longest water-based infrastructure funnel. To put the project in perspective: it aims to transport more water than the UK’s Thames River (44.8 billion cubic metres) along pipes and canals running an equivalent length to the distance between the American east and west coasts (4,350 kilometres).

The project’s middle route is due to open at the end of October and it is this section which has been designed to help Beijing, Tianjin and 100 counties in the north. Construction began in 2003, with water sourced from one of Asia’s largest reservoirs – Danjiangkou off the Han River in Hubei province.

In order to let gravity do its work and speed water flow downhill, the reservoir needed to be lifted 17 metres. This resulted in the relocation of 345,000 people whose villages had to be flooded.

When opened, the water will travel 1,276 kilometres (over about 15 days), and enter the city through the west of Beijing, and reach its final destination, Tuancheng Lake in the Summer Palace. A connection loop has been built along the entire length of Beijing’s Fifth Ring Road to take water to treatment plants south of the city.

This twenty-first century feat of engineering has been compared to the sixth century construction of the Grand Canal, which provided China with its first north-south economic waterway linking the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers and facilitating the transportation of goods across the country. Indeed, SNWD’s eastern route is regularly cited as the most cost efficient because it takes advantage of what is left of the Grand Canal. In this case, water is drawn from the Yangtze to supply 3.8 billion cubic metres of water a year to 21 cities and 71 counties in Jiangsu, Anhui and Shandong provinces.

Water will also be drawn from the Yangtze for the western route, which will supply northwest China. The entire project is known as the siheng sanzong, which means the four horizontals (Yangtze, Yellow, Huai and Han Rivers) and the three verticals (eastern, central and western routes).

Critics have long argued that SNWD’s costs outweigh the potential benefits and that it’s a white elephant project favoured by a Politburo with too many engineers (although, Mao Zedong – a non-engineer – first suggested it).

Similar to the Three Gorges Dam (see WiC232), many locals see it as another excuse for graft. As one netizen says on weibo, “Why are officials wasting money building bigger projects? Answer: so they can pocket more money.”

Water conservation experts have also criticised the scale of the plan, saying that money would be better spent on water conservation projects.

China’s inefficient agricultural sector accounts for 70% of total water demand, for instance. Motor-pumped wells – installed on farm plots too small to be productive – have been a major drain on groundwater reserves. Additionally 30% of agricultural labour costs are spent on primitive irrigation techniques.

Some bureaucrats have broken ranks with official policies. In late July, an official from the Ministry of Environmental Protection suggested China should scale back its food security policy and import more grain in order to free up water for coal production instead (water is used as a coolant at coal-fired power stations).

Li Jungeng, director of China’s National Climate Change Research Centre also says that “water security is more important than energy security.” That’s why the government is coming up with new initiatives to conserve water – such as phasing out pumps and private wells in favour of a new pricing system covering the agricultural sector. A pilot project was launched in Hebei in June to test some of the concepts.

Many believe that urban dwellers need to be better educated about the necessity of conserving water. Their water tariffs will also need to rise to fund desalination plants, as well as to ensure that fully recycled potable water projects are commercially feasible.

At a meeting chaired by Li Keqiang in May, the State Council also prioritised new conservation projects. By 2020, it aims to launch 172 schemes with the target of increasing the country’s supply by 80 billion cubic metres per year and saving 26 billion cubic metres of water currently squandered by agriculture.

Ironically, in water-poor Beijing, the capital’s residents were suddenly inundated with the stuff this week. There was traffic chaos on Tuesday as 4cm of rainfall flooded the city in just 24 hours (some areas were deluged by as much as 14cm of rain). But such freak events do not change the fundamentals of the water deficit or the rationale for why the SNWD is being constructed…

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.