The Thirsty Dragon: South-North Water Transfer ‘Not Sustainable’

Via ChinaFile, an update on China’s South-North Water Transfer project which, one official said, would be rendered irrelevant if one-third of buildings in Beijing could collect more rainwater and recycle more wastewater:

The bank of the Yangtze River in southwest China’s Chongqing municipality, dried up in a drought that in 2011 forced authorities to halt shipping. The South-North Water Transfer Project will divert more water from the nation’s longest waterway.

The $62 billion South-North Water Transfer Project would be rendered irrelevant if one-third of buildings in Beijing could collect more rainwater and recycle more wastewater, according to a Chinese ministerial official.

The remarks made by Qiu Baoxing, vice minister of the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, in the February issue of Water & Wastewater Engineering, represents a rare government opinion against one of China’s greatest engineering feats. Construction of the diversion project, which officially started in 2002, is considered controversial for its high cost, environmental impact and massive displacement of local population.

The vast water diversion scheme consists of three canal systems, with the eastern route already supplying water to Shandong province in December.

“As the scale of the project gets bigger and the distance gets longer, it is more and more difficult to divert water,” Qiu writes.

“Recycled water could replace diverted water. Most Chinese cities are capable of finding more water if we develop water desalination technology and collect more rain water,” he adds.

According to Qiu, the diversion project has also resulted in new pollution along its routes. He says diverted water has led to the leaking of residues in local pipelines, a problem that is “very difficult” to solve.

China is already grappling to clean up serious pollution along the central route of the diversion project, which is designed to start operation in 2014.

The Danjiangkou Reservoir, at the start of the central route, located in central China’s Hubei province, is badly polluted as the five rivers flowing into it are routinely used as dumping grounds for untreated sewage by local industries, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection acknowledged in November.

“China tries to solve its water shortage problem by diverting water, but such a way is, to some extent, now mired in difficulties,” Qiu writes.

Qiu also warns that there will be more water crisis in China if it sticks to the South-North Water Diversion Project. He says China is now in a “critical” period to address water pollution issues as the country continues to urbanize.

“If we miss the opportunity to repair water ecology, we will pay dearly,” he writes. “If we try to solve our water crisis by diverting water, then new ecological problems will emerge. This is not sustainable at all.”

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