ZHENGZHOU, China – It might be the most ambitious construction project in China since the Great Wall.
The government is planning to reroute the nation’s water supply, bringing water from the flood plains of the south and the snow-capped mountains of the west to the parched capital of Beijing.
First envisioned by Mao Zedong in the 1950s and now coming to fruition, the South-North Water Diversion – as it is inelegantly known in English – will cost more than $62 billion, twice as much as the famous Three Gorges Dam. The project is expected to take decades to finish.
“This is on a par with the Great Wall, a project essential for the survival of China,” said Wang Shushan, who heads the project in Henan province, where much of the construction work is being done. “It is a must-do project. We can’t afford to wait.”
In effect, the Chinese are “re-plumbing” the entire country, said Orville Schell, a scholar of China and an environmentalist. That is something “no country has ever done successfully in the past.”
China is plagued by extreme weather. Vast river deltas in the south are inundated each year by floods, while the steppes of the north are swept by sandstorms. To remedy this, the engineers are creating a vast network of canals, tunnels and aqueducts that will extend thousands of miles across the country.
The middle route – there are three routes in all – would siphon water from a tributary of the Yangtze River 570 miles southwest of Beijing. The water would then be funneled through a canal traversing three provinces and passing under the Yellow River.
“It is a little like building the tunnel under the English Channel to connect France and England, except we’re moving water, not vehicles,” said Yang Sheya, an engineering supervisor working on the underground aqueduct along the banks of the Yellow River, where it passes just north of Henan’s provincial capital, Zhengzhou.
Here, the Chinese engineers have scooped out a 1,000-foot-wide canal. It plunges 180 feet underground to pass underneath the Yellow River. (The Yellow River itself is too polluted to supply drinking water.)
The Chinese have designed a system that uses no pumps, relying only on gravity from the higher elevation of the south for the water to run downhill to Beijing. A spur will also feed the port city of Tianjin to the east.
Many Chinese activists oppose the project. They point out the affront to river ecosystems and fish and bird life, the damage to the archaeological sites in what is widely considered the cradle of Chinese civilization, the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of people and, most of all, the underlying hubris of an undertaking that in essence would rearrange the nation’s great rivers.
“They are robbing the water of the rest of China to supply Beijing – and it probably won’t work anyway,” said Dai Qing, a pro-democracy activist who was imprisoned before the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and who now focuses on water issues.
Dai said there wasn’t enough clean water in southern China to supply the north and that whatever water does reach Beijing might be too polluted to be usable. In fact, the Chinese government has acknowledged that water from an eastern spur of the diversion project, which follows the route of the 1,400-year-old Grand Canal waterway, is so toxic that it is unclear whether it can be used even for agriculture.
Politically speaking, the project is sacrosanct, its genesis tied to a remark that Mao reportedly made in 1952: “There’s a lot of water in the south, but not much in the north. If we could borrow some, then everything would be OK.”
The Communist Party has staked enormous prestige on the success of the project, which is supposed be a showpiece for President Hu Jintao’s theories of “scientific development.” Hu is a hydraulic engineer by training who began his career at Sinohydro, the state dam-builder responsible for much of the construction.
“The ability to control water in China has always been seen as one of the benchmarks of a leader who is able to manage the country. It goes back to the idea that the emperor is the go-between to protect the people from the heavens,” said Jonathan Watts, author of a new book, “When a Billion Chinese Jump,” about China’s environment. “The fact that they are still doing it shows their desperation.”
In all, there are three major components to the project. The 885-mile eastern line from Hangzhou to Beijing, which mostly follows the route of the Grand Canal, is planned to be ready by 2013. The middle line is supposed to open in 2014 and run 766 miles, although it might be extended. The western section, which is still in the planning stages, would funnel water from the Tibetan plateau. But with serious cost overruns and delays on the eastern and middle routes, there are doubts about whether it will be built at all.
The project also has been complicated by the massive relocations of populations that stand in the way of the water. “In the old days, people were willing to sacrifice their homes for Chairman Mao. But nowadays, their attitude is: If you don’t give me money, I won’t go,” Dai said.
In order to get enough water, the engineers have raised the height of the Danjiangkou dam in Hubei province, where the middle line originates, forcing 330,000 people from their homes.
Hoping to avoid the types of public protests that dogged the Three Gorges project, Chinese authorities have raised compensation levels and built entire new villages, complete with schools, clinics, general stores and community centers.
One such model village, Guanggou (the name was transplanted from the original community 240 miles away) looks like a cross between a California housing development and a prison, with rows of two-story red-roofed townhouses painted pale yellow, all surrounded by a high iron fence.
The 1,600 people relocated in August are being trained to farm their new land, which is drier than their old fields, and they are even being taught to change their diet from noodles to rice, which is more popular in this part of Henan province.
“We have given up everything for the greater good of the country, but the party has been good to us, too,” said Yao Ziliang, 74. He said he was confident that the water diversion project would be a success. “Of course, it will bring water to Beijing. The party would not lie to us.”