In many parts of the United States, there is a disconnect between where water is plentiful and where the end users of the water live. Projects like the Lake Sardis Pipeline in Oklahoma (see Oklahoma Water Battle) or the Bay Delta Conservation Plan in California move water from its source to urban and agriculture users hundreds of miles away. But the United States is not alone in creating projects that move large amounts of water from one region to another. China currently is undertaking one if its most ambitious engineering projects to move water resources from the relatively plentiful areas in the south to the drier and more populous areas of the north. Proponents of the so-called South-North Water Transfer Project say that the project will allow China to continue its rapid economic expansion more sustainably. Opponents argue that the project will create even further environmental damage to the water systems that over a billion people rely upon every day. Where does the truth lie? Likely somewhere in between. Let’s explore both of these issues further, with a bit of background on the project to start.
While China has the highest population of any country in the world, (estimated at 1.36 billion people according to Chinese government estimates in 2012) China currently uses far less water per-capita than many other industrialized countries. According to an October 12th article in The Economist, the average Chinese citizen uses approximately 400 cubic meters of water per person annually – less than one quarter the amount an average person uses in the United States. However, do not let these statistics fool you; even at this pace of usage and the current infrastructure in the country, its citizens, farms and industry are using water at an alarming rate. Consider Beijing, the country’s capital. The water table under the city has dropped by 1,000 feet since the 1970s! The amount of water in the city’s aquifers amounts to about 100 cubic meters per person, about the same amount of water that the desert cities of Saudi Arabia have.
The main problem is that like some areas in the United States, the population centers and water resources are far apart from each other. Southern China holds four-fifths of the country’s water resources, particularly in the Yangtze River Basin. Northern China accounts for two-thirds of the farmland and half of the population. In response, the Chinese government is undertaking a massive engineering project called the South-North Water Diversion Project. The project will build two sets of canals totaling over 1,800 miles long to bring water resources from the Yangtze River Valley to the agricultural and urban centers in the north. The complexity of this project is immense. The project will drill massive tunnels through mountains and over deserts to connect the country’s largest rivers, the Yangtze and Yellow in a few places. The price tag for this project is just as immense – a hefty $79.4 billion according to initial government estimates. However, the economic and environmental impacts could be even higher than the project’s initial price tag.
On the one hand, it is clear that China or any society for that matter needs water resources for economic growth. And there is no denying that China has seen some incredible economic expansion in the last twenty years. One simply has to look at the photos of cities like Shanghai in the 1970s versus today to see how quickly China has created economic expansion. As the population of China continues to earn higher wages, they will spend more money on clothing, food and other consumer goods. The increased spending on consumer goods increases the strain on water resources simply because raising livestock and creating consumer goods requires significant amounts of water. Chinese officials are desperate to keep the pace of expansion up, and thus are looking to ways to keep the economic engines in the country turning. Providing a reliable water supply source will help Chinese officials to keep the economic expansion programs going forward.
Unfortunately, the economic expansion has come at a price to the environment. When we think of China’s biggest environmental concern, we often think of the air pollution. China’s air pollution was on full display during the 2008 Olympics when the government forced over one million cars off of the road and thousands of factories to shut down in the months prior to the start of the games. Less publicized but just as harmful, however, is the water pollution issue. The figures are staggering. Even according to the Chinese Government’s own Ministry of Land Resources Survey, 70% of the water in in the North China Plain has a pollution grade of 4 or above, on a 1-5 scale. That means that 70% of the groundwater supplies in North China are unfit for human consumption. The waterways that people, agriculture and industry rely upon are in many instances filled with raw sewage, industrial waste, and runoff from farms.
The supplies that are coming from the South through the new diversion tunnels are not always of better quality. Areas in Southern China that have seen industrial expansion near the waterways have many of the same pollution issues. So the new diversion canals will send water north that is not clean, and will do nothing to remediate the polluted aquifers into which the imported water will be introduced. Furthermore, the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers have two distinct ecosystems. When connected, the pollution and intermingling of organisms in the individual rivers can have unforeseen consequences.
I can understand why China is so desperate to try to increase its water supplies. Its people, economy, and likely its political stability rely on safe water supplies. But the environmental issues that the country faces are also staggering. In the United States, water supply development programs began long before environmental concerns decreased water supply development. In contrast, China currently faces both water supply constraints and environmental hazards as they build out their water supplies. The issues are completely intertwined, and the new diversion projects may only exacerbate both of these issues.
So while significant effort and resources will go into building the diversion canals in China, I believe the effort will bring no value to the country unless the government takes definitive steps to control the pollution issues that make vast parts of the country’s water resources unfit for human consumption. Without a safe and adequate water supply, the country’s hard-fought economic gains may evaporate.