The Thirsty Dragon: High & Dry

Via The Financial Times, an accessible look at China’s North – South Diversion project:

Standing in the rubble of her home, with the sun setting on the graves of her ancestors behind her, Li De breaks down as she describes being relocated to make way for the Chinese government’s latest grand engineering project. Her house in rural Henan province will soon be submerged beneath a reservoir feeding the central route of the biggest water scheme in history – the “south-north water diversion project”.

“[The government] told us they were moving us to new lands to become rich and prosperous but they’ve thrown us into a fire pit,” sobs Ms Li. “The new land and houses are worthless and our lives there are so bitter.”

The peasant farmer is among the first batch of 440,000 people who will be uprooted to make way for the reservoir and a canal that will carry water from the Yangtze river and its tributaries in the south of China to the arid northern plains and Beijing.

This project, with its echoes of Maoist megalomania, does not fit easily with modern China, where Beijing is making concerted efforts to clean up its tormented environment and foster its own green revolution.

It is also becoming harder for Beijing to uproot hundreds of thousands to make way for such pharaonic gestures. As citizens grow richer, better organised and quicker to demand basic rights, the government is increasingly wary of stirring up grass-roots discontent that could grow into a wider political opposition movement.

But the country’s rulers, most of them engineers by training, are pushing ahead with the scheme despite opposition from even some of its own experts, who say it will have unintended consequences and is unlikely to achieve its stated goal.

The scale of the planned diversion is unprecedented. In the east, the government has built more than 40 giant pumping stations along the ancient waterways of the Imperial Grand Canal to pump billions of cubic metres of water northwards, while in central China the 1,400km canal goes subterranean at one point, tunnelling beneath the mighty Yellow river.

Meanwhile, engineers have planned an ambitious route on the Tibetan plateau 1,000km to the west, which will involve blasting through some of the world’s highest peaks to divert water from the upper reaches of the Yangtze to the headwaters of the Yellow river, merging two major river basins for the first time.

Despite the opposition, China’s ritualistic power politics make it impossible for the leadership to abort the project because that would call into question the credibility of their predecessors and the legitimacy of the Communist party. However, in what may be an important change, people involved say Beijing is reconsidering the feasibility of the western route – partly because of the engineering challenge and exorbitant cost; partly because of a recognition among the political elite of the unforeseen consequences of previous mega-projects.

The project is an outdated symbol of 20th-century China that sit uneasily with the current administration’s emphasis on sustainable, balanced growth. To western ears, phrases such as “scientific development” and “harmonious society” may sound abstract but – repeated frequently at every level of government – they are the bedrock of a new official philosophy. They express the determination of President Hu Jintao and his administration to move from the blind pursuit of economic growth to a more sustainable, less environmentally destructive version, with more equitable distribution of prosperity and an emphasis on better quality of life for the 750m rural citizens.

Like the Three Gorges dam – the world’s largest hydroelectric project, built in the previous decade – the scheme is a legacy of Mr Hu’s predecessors. It bears the highest stamp of approval: that of Chairman Mao Zedong himself, the father of the Chinese communist system.

In 1952, during an inspection of the Yellow river basin, the “great helmsman” made an observation that was to have far-reaching consequences: “There is a lot of water in the south of China and too little in the north. If it’s possible, we could borrow a bit and bring it north.” It may or may not have been an off-hand remark. What is certain is that it was taken to heart by Mao’s underlings. Engineers set to work on plans to transfer water from the Yangtze to the dry north and the dwindling Yellow river. However, it was not until 2002 that Mr Hu’s predecessors approved the project with an estimated Rmb500bn price tag as one of their last executive acts, paving the way for construction to begin.

Critics say the government has largely shelved its plans to tackle the country’s water crisis – China has 22 per cent of the world’s population, but its water availability is just one quarter of the world’s average per capita – through conservation in favour of the hugely expensive diversion project.

“Water has been overused in such an unsustainable way in the north of China partially because of this project, because governments and people are anticipating water from the south to meet the shortfall,” says Ma Jun of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. “But unless water use is curbed in the north there will still be a huge shortfall, even with the extra water from the south-north diversion project.”

In the North China plain region, home to 440m people, the water shortage is the most severe, with just 462 cu m per capita available per person per annum, far below the 1,000 cu m used by the UN to define a “water scarce” society. In the giant cities of Beijing and Tianjin, the level is just 292 cu m, a little above 3 per cent of the global average. The crisis is exacerbated by increasingly severe pollution that has left 60 per cent of monitored rivers and lakes unsuitable for drinking or human contact.

But despite the shortages, usage is wasteful. For every $4 of economic output, 1 cu m of water is required – roughly three times the world average. In Beijing, where the population of more than 17m lives in a state of drought, well-watered golf courses and aquatic features abound, and the government has announced plans to turn the Olympic “bird’s nest” stadium complex into a winter sports park, covering more than 20,000 square metres with man-made snow.

Ms Li and her neighbours on the central line of the diversion project find it impossible to comprehend that they are being moved from their ancestral homes to live in squalor so that the capital’s privileged elite can enjoy water ornaments and skiing.

Just 23,000 of those set to be relocated have been moved, and the government has launched an old-fashioned propaganda campaign to convince the remaining villagers to leave peacefully. But in dozens of interviews with the Financial Times, those already moved voiced anger and dissatisfaction over what they said was inadequate compensation and official indifference to their plight. The scale of indignation and anger is likely to multiply when the remainder of the 440,000 new migrants are shifted and their homes demolished.

As Chinese citizens have become wealthier they have also become more assertive, and better organised in their opposition to projects that directly affect their lives. In a number of recent cases, urban residents have managed to block the construction of chemical plants near their homes, while in rural areas and more remote cities the frequency of full-scale riots and violent demonstrations has spiked in recent years. Officials privately admit the potential exists for serious social unrest and that this is their biggest challenge in trying to complete the project.

Nonetheless, the first stages of the central and eastern routes are well advanced, scheduled for completion by 2013. The eastern route, however, has faced delays and complications in the form of severe industrial and municipal pollution along the Grand Canal network. According to people familiar with the matter, the government of Tianjin, a port city of nearly 12m people an hour’s drive from Beijing, has refused to take water from this route because officials are worried it will be too polluted to drink.

The cost of the first phase of the project is estimated at Rmb255bn, and critics say this is another important reason why the government is unable to reverse course entirely. They say local government officials are relying on these funds to provide jobs and economic growth, not to mention kickback opportunities. The central government is unable radically to scale back without seriously undermining its authority among the lower ranks.

Faced with exorbitant financial and human costs but unable to pull the plug, the government has altered the rationale to silence opponents and push on with construction. “Behind closed doors the main justification for the project seems to have been reduced to its strategic importance in case of a war or some other emergency situation,” according to one former official.

Even though global warming was not on Beijing’s agenda in 2002, let alone in 1952 when the plan was first envisaged, the water diversion project has also been rebranded as part of the response to climate change. But many suspect these reasons are little more than fig leaves for a project the government is unable fully to reverse, although it no longer fits with the kind of country China wants to be.

“Unfortunately we live in a system where our unelected leaders push ahead with mad dreams rather than take responsibility after bringing disasters to the ordinary people,” says Dai Qing, a conservationist who has spent time in China’s most notorious political prison for her criticism of government-led environmental destruction. “But perhaps if the leaders really believe their slogans and really decide it’s time to live in harmony with nature, then this will be the last mad mega-project we see in China.”


Thanks to decades of propaganda, almost everyone in China has heard of the Red Flag Canal, an engineering marvel built at the height of Maoist fervour by peasant farmers with only the most rudimentary of tools.

Between 1960 and 1969 more than 100,000 “volunteer” labourers tunnelled through hundreds of kilometres of mountain to divert drinking water from neighbouring Shanxi province to the parched valleys of Lin county in Northern Henan province.

Still held up by the party as a patriotic model of the communist “spirit”, the canal is now little more than a tourist attraction. The water level has dropped as the source river dwindles, much of Lin county has dried up again and upstream pollution makes the water unpotable. There are bitter disputes between Lin county farmers and those upstream who had their water taken, and who now receive compensation from the Lin county government.

Critics of today’s grand south-north water diversion scheme see parallels with the earlier endeavour. “Just as there were unforeseen and detrimental consequences to the Red Flag Canal, so will there be with the south-north water diversion, which will be considered a disaster within 20 years,” says Dai Qing, a veteran conservationist and political activist. “Under Chairman Mao we often heard the slogan, ‘Humans must conquer nature’, and that is still the mentality of so many people today – but gradually we are learning that human beings cannot conquer nature and that this philosophy inevitably leads to disaster.”

One major difference between the Mao-era canal and the modern scheme is the huge sums involved, and the resulting eagerness of local government officials for the project to proceed. The first phase of construction will cost Rmb255bn ($37bn) and the remainder is expected to cost multiples of that.

With so much money flowing through ministries and state-owned construction companies and down to local governments, the opportunities for graft are numerous. Already some of the peasant farmers shifted from their homes to make way for the central route of the project are complaining that money set aside for their compensation and relocation has been stolen by local officials, a story familiar from other giant projects such as the Three Gorges dam, which involved the relocation of more than 1.3m people.

Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that propaganda campaigns still hail the spirit of the builders of the Red Flag Canal, who were motivated not by money but by revolutionary fervour and their love for Chairman Mao.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, December 15th, 2009 at 11:21 am and is filed under China.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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