June 2, 2011

China's Epic Water Shortage

From the New York Times, excerpts from a story by Edward Wong showing the enormity of China's water problem and its stupendous, if risky, response:
North China is dying. A chronic drought is ravaging farmland. The Gobi Desert is inching south. The Yellow River, the so-called birthplace of Chinese civilization, is so polluted it can no longer supply drinking water. The rapid growth of megacities — 22 million people in Beijing and 12 million in Tianjin alone — has drained underground aquifers that took millenniums to fill. 
Not atypically, the Chinese government has a grand and expensive solution: Divert at least six trillion gallons of water each year hundreds of miles from the other great Chinese river, the Yangtze, to slake the thirst of the north China plain and its 440 million people.  
The engineering feat, called the South-North Water Diversion Project, is China’s most ambitious attempt to subjugate nature. It would be like channeling water from the Mississippi River to meet the drinking needs of Boston, New York and Washington. Its $62 billion price tag is twice that of the Three Gorges Dam, which is the world’s largest hydroelectric project. And not unlike that project, which Chinese officials last month admitted had “urgent problems,” the water diversion scheme is increasingly mired in concerns about its cost, its environmental impact and the sacrifices poor people in the provinces are told to make for those in richer cities.  
Three artificial channels from the Yangtze would transport precious water from the south, which itself is increasingly afflicted by droughts; the region is suffering its worst one in 50 years. The project’s human cost is staggering — along the middle route, which starts here in Hubei Province at a gigantic reservoir and snakes 800 miles to Beijing, about 350,000 villagers are being relocated to make way for the canal. Many are being resettled far from their homes and given low-grade farmland; in Hubei, thousands of people have been moved to the grounds of a former prison. . . . 
Some Chinese scientists say the diversion could destroy the ecology of the southern rivers, making them as useless as the Yellow River. The government has neglected to do proper impact studies, they say. There are precedents in the United States. Lakes in California were damaged and destroyed when the Owens River was diverted in the early 20th century to build Los Angeles. 
Here, more than 14 million people in Hubei would be affected if the project damaged the Han River, the tributary of the Yangtze where the middle route starts, said Du Yun, a geographer at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan, the provincial capital. 
Officials in provinces south of Beijing and Tianjin have privately raised objections and are haggling over water pricing and compensation; midlevel officials in water-scarce Hebei Province are frustrated that four reservoirs in their region have sent more than 775 million cubic meters, or 205 billion gallons, of water to Beijing since September 2008 in an “emergency” supplement to the middle route.
Overseers of the eastern route, which is being built alongside an ancient waterway for barges called the Grand Canal, have found that the drinking water to be brought to Tianjin from the Yangtze is so polluted that 426 sewage treatment plants have to be built; water pollution control on the route takes up 44 percent of the $5 billion investment, according to Xinhua, the official news agency. The source water from the Han River on the middle route is cleaner. But the main channel will cross 205 rivers and streams in the industrial heartland of China before reaching Beijing.
“When water comes to Beijing, there’s the danger of the water not being safe to drink,” said Dai Qing, an environmental advocate who has written critically about the Three Gorges Dam. 
. . .Wang Jian, a former environmental and water management official with the Beijing government and the State Council, China’s cabinet, agreed that the project “carries huge risks,” but he said there were no other options given the severity of the current water shortage.
The middle route is to start major operations in 2014, and the eastern route is expected to be operational by 2013. The lines were originally supposed to open by the 2008 Summer Olympics, but have been hobbled by myriad problems. 
The diversion project was first studied in the 1950s, after Mao uttered: “Water in the south is abundant, water in the north scarce. If possible, it would be fine to borrow a little.”
In a country afflicted by severe cycles of droughts and floods and peasant rebellions that often resulted from them, control of water has always been important to Chinese rulers. Emperors sought to legitimize their rule with large-scale water projects like the Grand Canal or the irrigation system in Dujiangyan. . . . 
The central question for people in Hubei is whether the Han River, crucial to farming and industrial production hubs, will be killed to keep north China alive. . . . 
The demands of the north will not abate. Migration from rural areas means Beijing’s population is growing by one million every two years, according to an essay in China Daily written last October by Hou Dongmin, a scholar of population development at Renmin University of China. . . .
Beijing has about 100 cubic meters, or 26,000 gallons, of water available per person. According to a standard adopted by the United Nations, that is a fraction of the 1,000 cubic meters, or 260,000 gallons, per person that indicates chronic water scarcity. 
The planning for Beijing’s growth up to 2020 by the State Council already assumes the water diversion will work, rather than planning for growth with much less water, said Mr. Wang, the former official.
The next day, Wong weighed in with a report on the Three Gorges Dam, noting a story in the Shanghai Daily criticizing its planners, who failed to take realistic account of the effects downstream.
...[T]he dam has contributed to lower water levels in two of China’s largest freshwater lakes, raising the threat to them during long droughts, the report said. Large areas of central and southern China are suffering from the worst drought in 50 years, and the levels have plummeted in the Yangtze River and other bodies of water, including here in Chongqing.

Wang Jingquan, the official quoted by the newspaper, said water levels in the two lakes — Dongting in Hunan Province and Poyang in Jiangxi Province — had fallen in part because of the storage of water in the reservoir behind the dam, which is on the Yangtze.

In addition, the dam has had an impact on fish breeding and the growth of plants in the lower reaches of the Yangtze, said Mr. Wang, who works in a flood control and drought relief office that is linked to the Yangtze River Water Resources Committee. He said proper discharge from the reservoir would help the lakes.

“We failed to think of all the impacts that the dam might bring about when designing the dam, but its advantages should outweigh the disadvantages.” . . .Two weeks ago, senior Chinese officials admitted that there were “urgent problems” associated with the dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project. The admission came in a vague statement from the State Council, China’s cabinet. “Although the Three Gorges project provides huge comprehensive benefits, urgent problems must be resolved regarding the smooth relocation of residents, ecological protection and geological disaster prevention,” the Council said.

Plans for the 600-foot-high dam were criticized at an early stage, but the Chinese government pressed ahead. Besides the ecological impact, the dam displaced 1.4 million people when the water levels upstream were raised.

The central government is also trying to deal with concerns over another ambitious water project, the South-North Water Diversion, which would siphon water from the Yangtze to Beijing and other northern cities. The drought in the regions along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze has underscored worries about channeling the river’s water to the north.

Cities are turning to increasingly desperate measures to combat the drought’s effects. The island city of Zhoushan in Zhejiang Province started water rationing on Wednesday, according to Xinhua, the state news agency. Residents have been told they can use running water for only five hours a day because the city can no longer depend on 20 of its 29 reservoirs. From January to May, rainfall in Zhoushan was the lowest on record, Xinhua said.

On Thursday, Xinhua said that rainfall along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze was down 40 percent to 60 percent from the average, with the totals being lower than at any time since 1951. The report cited data from the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters.

In Jiangsu Province’s Sushui County, fish and clams are dying, and crab-breeding farms are parched and cracked, Xinhua said. At Honghu Lake, fish spawning has been affected, said Zeng Xiaodong, leader of the Honghu marshland management office. “The drought has done considerable damage to the ecological environment of Honghu Lake,” he said.

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