There’s an old saying in the American West: “Water flows uphill toward money.” The same holds true in China, where engineers are building a 1,500-mile network of canals and tunnels to divert water from the rain-abundant south to Beijing and other wealthy northern cities.
Costing an estimated $62 billion, the South-North Water Transfer Project is the largest public works undertaking in China since the Three Gorges Dam, and even more gargantuan in scale. Parts of the project are behind schedule and over budget, but the costs go far beyond money. The government has relocated more than 330,000 villagers for the project, and many are angry over lost farmland and compensation they say was skimmed off by corrupt local officials.
“We were willing to sacrifice the small family for the good of the big family _ the nation,” said one villager, Jia, whom McClatchy interviewed. But the government, he said, “has not kept its promises.”
In China, the “big family” faces a big crisis: diminishing natural resources, including clean air, water and soil. Of all of China’s shortages, “water is the most critical,” said Damien Ma, a China expert and author at the independent Paulson Institute at the University of Chicago, which promotes economic growth and environmental preservation between the U.S. and China.
Water depletion and pollution, Ma said, threaten to throw a wrench into the engine of the world’s second largest economy. Others agree. “The north is in an emergency with its water supply,” said Ma Jun, China’s foremost environmentalist.
To stem the crisis, China is taking a page from California’s 1960s playbook and is shoveling vast sums of public money into new dams and water diversions. At the center of the south-north water project is a 798-mile channel that starts at Danjiangkou Reservoir near Nanyang, in Henan province, and ends at Beijing. When completed later this fall, it’s expected to divert 7.7 million acre feet of water _ more than 2.5 trillion gallons _ to the north each year, about three times what the California Aqueduct delivers annually.
East of that channel, work crews have finished a 718-mile canal that might deliver even more water to north. Yet unlike the central route, the eastern route doesn’t have the benefit of gravity to help the water flow. That means China must depend on pumps to move water uphill, requiring the use of another scarce resource: electricity.
“It’s mega engineering. It is sexy. But the economics don’t make much sense,” said Darrin Magee, a professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York who specializes in China water issues. “They are doing this because they are doing this, not because of a reasoned economic analysis.”
Chairman Mao Zedong is considered to be the inspirational force behind the South-North Water Transfer Project. He was quoted as saying in 1952: “Southern water is plentiful, northern water scarce. If at all possible, borrowing some water would be good.”
Serious planning for the project, however, didn’t start until the droughts of the 1990s. In 2002, China’s State Council approved the construction of the eastern and central routes of the water canals. The project included expanding and raising the elevation of the Danjiangkou Reservoir, one of the largest in Asia.
By raising the reservoir, engineers sought to bring it to an elevation where the water would flow to Beijing largely by gravity. But the expansion meant flooding scores of villages and relocating hundreds of thousands of people.
Jia, who owned a business in Dashiqiao village, was one of those. His full name is not being used to shield him from possible retaliation.
His family had lived and farmed in the area for hundreds of years, he said. In 2003, local government officials surveyed the area and told households living below 564 feet above sea level that they would have to move.
“We called it ‘above the line’ and ‘below the line,’ ” said Jia. “We were below the line.”
Like many of their neighbors, Jia and his family went willingly. Local officials promised them a new house, farmland and money in the new Dashiqiao village, roughly 120 miles away. The officials sold them on the move, he said, with a patriotic Chinese phrase: “she xiao jia, wei da jia,” which means “sacrificing the small family for the big family.”
In March, Jia and his wife invited visitors into their apartment in the new Dashiqiao village and talked about their new life. Sitting in their second-floor living room next to a flat-screen TV, Jia acknowledged that their new apartment is more modern than their old home. But it’s not without problems. Plaster and paint could be seen falling from walls. Promised items in the apartment _ such as doors _ weren’t there when they moved in, he said.
The government failed to keep other promises, he said. His new farm plot is smaller than his old one, and the soil is of lower quality. His children must walk nearly two miles to the nearest school. He can’t get a loan for his business _ “I am treated as an immigrant” _ and the government has shorted villagers on much of the promised compensation.
“The money was allocated at the higher level of government, but it did not reach us,” said Jia. “It was embezzled by the lower level of government.”
Forty miles away, relocated residents in another hamlet, Linggang New Village, shared similar stories with a McClatchy reporter. One man, Fan, said several villagers had petitioned the government about being shorted on compensation and were taken away because of their complaints. “Honestly, we have not adapted to our new home,” said Fan, who also said he had to walk several miles each day to till the small plot the government offered him.
Claims such as those of Jia and Fan are difficult to verify, but it isn’t unprecedented for lower-level Chinese officials to redirect or pocket government subsidies intended for rural residents. On Monday, state media reported that the government has launched a corruption investigation against Tan Xiwei, a senior official in Chongqing, on suspicion of misusing resettlement funds for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project. According to a 2013 government audit, the equivalent of $44.6 million was embezzled for other purposes.
Roy Prosterman, a retired University of Washington law professor who specializes in rural land rights worldwide, said the stories of the relocated villagers near Nanyang sounded sadly familiar. China is taking steps to improve rural land rights, but those policies often are trumped by demands for infrastructure projects and a push toward large-scale industrial agriculture, said Prosterman, the founder of a Seattle-based nonprofit called Landesa.
Sometime next fall, possibly as early as September, engineers will turn several valves and water will flow to Beijing from the Danjiangkou Reservoir. More than 400 feet wide and lined in concrete, the central channel can carry nearly 15,000 cubic feet of water every second. For comparison, the Missouri River’s average flow at Kansas City is 55,400 cubic feet per second. Engineers estimate the water will take 15 days to get to Beijing.
Qi Shengbo, the deputy director of the Nanyang City South-North Water Project, said he’d been working on the central channel for a decade and would take pride in its completion.
“I hope there will be a ceremony,” said Qi. “This has been a project envisioned for many years, starting with Chairman Mao.”
Seen up close, the central channel is nothing if not impressive. Construction started in 2008, and within five years some 10,000 workers had raised a dam and reservoir and dug 780 miles of channel. On a recent spring day, workers could be seen finishing erosion-control work on the channel and tending to what officials say will eventually be an “ecological corridor” of trees on both sides.
The channel crosses numerous rivers and creeks on its way to Beijing. At 20 of these, engineers have built elevated aqueducts to carry water over the rivers. At the largest, 22 miles downstream from the reservoir, more than 1 million cubic feet of concrete was poured to create a half-mile-long elevated structure over the Tuan River.
“This is the largest aqueduct on the project,” said Pang Wenzhan, a deputy chief engineer, providing a tour of the structure. “In terms of length and amount of water, it is the largest in the world.”
Whether all this engineering will meet expectations is unclear. Back in the 1990s, the Danjiangkou Reservoir’s water source, the Han River, a tributary of the Yangtze, was known widely to be pristine. Some of its tributaries have since been fouled, and contamination along the channel route north is also a concern. “That sweet Yangtze water won’t taste so sweet when it gets to Beijing,” said Magee, the Hobart and William Smith Colleges China water expert.
Another problem is the degree that continuing diversions of water will harm the ecosystems of South China. While the mighty Yangtze isn’t close to drying up, a fate that regularly befalls the Yellow River in the north, China is increasingly tapping it for a variety of industrial and urban uses. “This could reduce the environmental capacity of the river, the availability of water and the water quality flowing downstream,” said Ma Jun, who heads the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs in Beijing.
Ma says the crisis starts and ends with unsustainable water use, particularly in Beijing, a growing capital of 22 million people and numerous fountains, lawns and golf courses. The South-North Water Transfer Project, he notes, was originally conditioned on a requirement that Beijing reduce its groundwater pumping and wasteful practices. “Now that the population is growing so fast, it is doubtful whether this plan will be carried out,” he said.
Even some top Communist Party officials are worried that the south-north project will be a costly embarrassment. In February, a senior official published a rare public criticism of the project in a Chinese publication, “Water & Wastewater Engineering.” He argued that it avoids the less glamorous choices of investing in water recycling and conservation.
“If we miss the opportunity to repair water ecology, we will pay dearly,” wrote Qiu Baoxing, China’s vice minister of housing and urban-rural development. “If we try to solve our water crisis by diverting water, then new ecological problems will emerge.”