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China’s South-North Water Diversion Project

Every large city needs a constant supply of fresh water to satisfy its
citizens; Beijing is no different. Beijing, which recently hosted the Olympic
and Para-Olympic Games, is a city of approximately 16 million people and growing
rapidly; current projections estimate that by 2010 there will be over 17 million
residents. While normally news about a city expanding is met with enthusiasm,
Beijing’s water supply can only support about 14 million. Complicating the matter is
the fact that Beijing is in the dry north and the surrounding province of Hebei has
been locked in a drought since 1999; since that time, the region has only received
about 75 percent of the anticipated precipitation.
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Every large city needs a constant supply of fresh water to satisfy its citizens;
Beijing is no different. Beijing, which recently hosted the Olympic and Para-Olympic
Games, is a city of approximately 16 million people and growing rapidly; current
projections estimate that by 2010 there will be over 17 million residents.
While normally news about a city expanding is met with enthusiasm, Beijing’s
water supply can only support about 14 million. Complicating the matter is the
fact that Beijing is in the dry north and the surrounding province of Hebei has
been locked in a drought since 1999; since that time, the region has only received
about 75 percent of the anticipated precipitation.

Beijing Relative to Hebei Province
Northern China, the industrial heart of the nation, has a much lower rainfall
than the southern reaches of China and its rivers are beginning to run dry.
Over the past 20 years, the Yellow River has often gone dry in its lower reaches
and some smaller rivers are now dried out most of the year. Beijing has worked
with Hebei Province to supply the city with water, but there just isn’t enough
water to be had. In fact, areas of Hebei are showing evidence of subsidence
due to the drain on groundwater reserves. At the heart of the problem is that
the entire region is historically dry. Mao once noted, “Southern water is plentiful,
northern water scarce.”

Long Term Vision

Beijing has long been aware of the critical need to supply its growing population.
Beijing undertook a massive water project called the South to North Water
Diversion Project. First envisioned in the 1950’s, the project was started a few
years ago; it is estimated that the project will complete in 2050. The project is
divided into three major routes, the Eastern Route, the Central Route and the
Western Route.

China’s South-North Water Diversion Project
The project’s eastern route, diverting water northward from the Yangtze River
through a tunnel burrowed beneath the Yellow River, will see an expansion of
the 1,600-km Imperial Grand Canal; at the culmination of the project, the Grand
Canal will be the world’s longest aqueduct. The 1,200-km-long central route
will also tunnel under the Yellow River. The most ambitious part of this project
is to divert river waters cascading from the Tibetan highlands. This is a technically
challenging phase and it includes a series of canals and tunnels along a 1,215-km
route bisecting the eastern Tibetan Plateau to connect the upper reaches of the
Yangtze with the upper reaches of the Yellow. The tunnels would have to be cut
through the earthquake-prone Bayankala Mountains.

In the Tibetan plateau, China’s South-North Project calls initially for building
300 km of tunnels and channels to draw waters from the Jinsha, Yalong and
Dadu rivers, located on the eastern rim of the plateau. The possible diversion
of the Brahmaputra waters northward is to come later. The idea of diverting
portions of the Brahmaputra is controversial – this may adversely affect the
dry-season availability of Brahmaputra waters downstream in India and Bangladesh
while increasing wet-season flooding.

It would appear that China has an ambitious plan to quench the thirst of its
people but it also appears that China must work with its neighbors to the south
and west so that an equitable and sustainable agreement can be reached.
If such an agreement were reached, it would certainly be historic and could lead
to the long term prosperity of the entire region.