China is delaying its construction of a massive earth-changing project that will divert billions of tons of water to its parched north, in an attempt to mitigate environmental damage. (Updated | 4 Jan 09 : Cleaner Greener China points to conflicting stories about the delay -- some say yes, others no -- for reasons unknown. Perhaps it could be national leaders overriding the concerns of local leaders.)
The four-year delay, reports the Wall Street Journal, will impact the central of three sections of the "South-to-North" water diversion project, which at $62 billion may cost three times what the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest, cost. The project is designed to move water over hundreds of kilometers, from China's central and southern regions to the north using three massive pipes. It could mean the relocation of some 300,000 people and carry enough water along its three routes to satisfy half of California's water needs.
A project that moves that much water across such a large distance is going to present a little more than the usual kind of environmental problem. Forget Chinatown; this could turn water tensions into water wars.The basics
The project, meant to solve the north's serious water woes, would involve engineering feats on one edge of the earthquake prone Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in western China, some 3,000 to 5,000 meters (9,800 to 16,400 feet) above sea level, much like the Qinghai-Tibet railway.
The water project, which was first proposed by Mao Zedong in 1952 and approved in 2001, has drawn fire from the scientific and environmentalist community, which say it will waste billions of dollars and damage the environment without addressing root problems.
The project could be considered a much bigger cousin of two other massive water projects, Tokyo's G-Cans underground waterway and Venice's MOSE flood control system. And last year, BLDGBLOG vividly described NAWAPA, an old fantastical plan by American water engineers to steer water out of British Columbia into the liquid-deprived American West. Before the recession and the stimulus package, Geoff wonders if "perhaps, in January 2009, after another dry winter, Los Angeles voters will start to get thirsty. Perhaps some well-positioned Senators, in 2010, might even start making phonecalls north."
This year, the central section of China's project came under rare scrutiny, when an environmental official in Hubei Province raised concerns that depleting water from the Han River would lead to pollution. Local media followed the controversy, the sort of debate that went unreported during the construction of the Three Gorges.
In December, authorities revised plans for the central section, with plans to add a dam and divert water from the Yangtze River into the Han. But as the Wall Street Journal reports,
Du Yun, a geologist with the Institute of Geodesy and Geophysics at the China Academy of Sciences, said that even those measures may not be sufficient. His research claims that siphoning off a third of the water from the Han River's Danjiangkou reservoir, as the plan calls for, will raise the risk of floods, increase sediment and worsen water quality -- hurting navigation and irrigation for local residents, and limiting supplies for industrial and municipal use.
Remember the Gorges
Consider the effects of China's (and the world's) current super water project, the Three Gorges. It has not only meant the largest "peaceful" displacement of people in history but has been blamed for changing the weather and causing water pollution, soil erosion and deadly landslides.
When Sichuan was struck by a deadly quake in May, some worried that it might have been triggered by the construction of the Three Gorges, which, located in the neighboring province of Chongqing, sits nearby large fault lines. That's not likely. But even if it isn't responsible for serious seismic disturbances, a large dam-damaging earthquake in the area could mean catastrophe for millions of people.
To make matters worse, redirecting water and relocating people doesn't have all kinds of known and unknown environmental problems, but is an easy invitation to social unrest.
Each year, China sees tens of thousands of protests over environmental damage. In one instance in 2000, writes Kevin Holden at National Geographic, thousands of farmers in the Yellow River Basin of eastern China clashed with police over a government plan to recapture runoff from a local reservoir for cities, industries, and other users. About 300,000 people are set to be relocated.
And then there's the controversial western route, which would transfer water along canals carved through rock from the Yangtze headwaters in Tibet to the Yellow River. Chinese scientists aren't the only ones opposed to the proposal: India is worried about depletion of its rivers.
India v. China
Social unrest in China is one (not good) thing, but getting a neighbor like India upset is another matter altogether.
India's massive Brahmaputra River begins in southwestern Tibet where it is known as the Yalong Tsangpo River. After a snaking eastward journey, the river makes a U-turn at what's known as "the Great Bend," or Shuomatan Point, before heading into India and then to Bangledesh, where it converges with the Ganges, and spills out in the Bay of Bengal.
It's at "the Great Bend" that China is planning to divert water, as well as build a massive 40,000 mw dam. The diversion will bring water levels in the Brahmaputra down significantly, affecting India’s northeast and Bangladesh. As the salinity of the water increases, agriculture and fishing will be impacted.
Reports Asia Times:
A water shortage in the Ganges has already affected the lives and livelihoods of millions in Bangladesh, pushing them to migrate to India, especially to its northeast. This migration of Bangladeshis has changed the demographic composition of vast tracts in the northeast (especially in Assam) and triggered serious ethnic conflicts there. A shortage of water in the Brahmaputra will accentuate these problems to dangerous levels.
Amid Indian concerns over the scheme's impact -- and China's potential political leverage -- Chinese officials have said that the glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau have an abundance of water, and that a diversion scheme will not significantly impact populations downstream in India or China. The glaciers, Asia's main watershed, feed ten rivers and are the source of water for 47% of the world's population, and are dependent on water rising in the Tibetan plateau.
But global warming is impacting these glaciers, and some fear they could disappear within the next fifty years, or even [whisper] by 2035. That could turn the Tibetan Plateau, which is otherwise an arid desert, into a water-scarce area.
It is still unclear how the delay will effect the project. A four-year hiatus seems short for such a serious project. But amid increasing transparency and public participation, the longer the Chinese government waits, the easier it may be for opponents of the dam, from Indian officials to Chinese scientists to farmers, to voice their opinions.
That will put Chinese leaders in a significant bind. The government insists the project is the only way to solve north China's chronic water problems, which are exacerbated by industrial uses, agricultural practices, overgrazing and climate change (see an excellent interactive China's Top Water Issues map at PBS). The ratio of water to people in China is a quarter of the world average; northern capital Beijing, where the ratio is one-thirtieth, has less water per person than Israel.
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has said that water scarcity threatened the very "survival of the Chinese nation."
Fixing water scarcity could do the same. As the Chinese government works on improving some of the country's laws -- and as both China and the U.S. consider how to spend their stimulus packages on new infrastructure -- there's an old law that deserves some attention: the law of unintended consequences.
Also on TreeHugger:
Terraforming in China
The Three Gorges: China's Own Dam Problem
Everest and Himalayan Glaciers Could Vanish by 2035
The World's Largest Subway, and Other Chinese Adventures
Dumb Question Dept.: If Earth is a Closed System and We're Running Out of Water, Where's it All Going?
The Next Green Thing: "Water Neutrality"