China Is Literally Moving Its Rivers North

Juan Umbarila
An engineering megaproject, first conceived in the 1950s by Chairman Mao, seeks to bring large quantities of water from Chinese southern rivers to the drier north.
South-North water transfer project. Central route. Photo: Nsbdgc | Wikimedia Commons

The South-North Water Diversion Project is one of the greatest and most expensive engineering undertakings, not only in China but in human history. Its purpose is to eventually bring 11.8 trillion gallons (44.8 billion cubic meters) of water from the Yangtze River and several of its subsidiaries in the south, to northern parts of China where population and industry consumption is larger, but water is much scarcer.

The government’s water diversion plan started 70 years ago and is divided into three sections, where water is moved from south to north by means of canals, tunnels, and aqueducts across vast extensions of territory. The project has a cost of $62 billion and is planned to be finished in 2050.

This is part of a bigger infrastructure plan to secure water and energy in China, and to boost its economy, for which Bloomberg estimates there is a $1 trillion (6.8 trillion Yuan) budget. According to the Chinese government, its hydric infrastructure will secure water conservancy, safeguard food security, and provide economic development for the country in the long term. But concerns have been raised about the ecological impacts and human displacements that such a megaproject might produce.

Three Routes Of Water Diversion

Routes of Water diversion From South to North. Photo: Maximilian Dörrbecker | Wikimedia Commons

In the long run, the project aims to create an integrated national water network made from the Yangtze, Yellow, Huaihe, and Haihe rivers. It will be divided into three geographical routes: eastern, central, and western.

The eastern route aims to supply the Shandong province in the north with water from the Yangtze River, close to its mouth in the East China Sea. It includes an underground tunnel passing underneath the Yellow River and has an extension of more than 700 miles. In 2014, it started supplying water to Shandong and in 2017 to Tianjin city.

In the middle of the country, the central route’s purpose is to give Beijing (in the northeast) and its surrounding areas water coming from the Danjiangkou Reservoir and the Han River. It has an extension of almost 800 miles and since 2014, it supplies two-thirds of the tap water in Beijing.

The western route is planned to be finished in 2050, and it is the most challenging technically, aiming to connect subsidiaries of the Yangtze River, in the Tibet region, with the Yellow River in the northwest across 300 miles of mountainous territory. It will transfer the equivalent of 7 million Olympic pools to the arid northwestern region each year.

50 Years of Planning; 50 Years To Build

Yangtze River. Photo: Boris Kasimov | Flickr

Despite China’s vast hydric resources, its water is unevenly distributed among its 4.1 billion people. Drought is a serious threat in the more arid northern parts of the country, where big cities, industries, and agriculture make water consumption more intense.

In the 1950s, late Chairman Mao Zedong famously said: “The South has plenty of water, the North much less. If possible, the North should borrow a little.” Thus began the planning for the South-North Water Diversion Project. After 50 years, the works started for the eastern and central projects in 2002 and 2003 respectively. The whole megaproject is to be finished by the middle of this century.

But there are concerns about its environmental and human impacts, especially for the western route, which is yet to be done and for which different approaches are still being contemplated. The human displacement could be of hundreds of thousands, and the damage to pasture lands is hard to calculate, as well as the possibility of landslides and floods due to possible earthquakes.

That is why some experts argue for different alternatives to these types of megaprojects, in favor of reducing water demand, improving water use efficiency, and tackling water pollution; as well as creating structural reforms to China’s agricultural sector.

In any case, much of the project is already finished; it remains to see what will happen to it as the century and the conversation unfolds.


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