By Eliza Barclay in Beijing
for National Geographic News
Published August 29, 2010
While the residents of Majestic Mansion, a new high-end real estate
development on the outskirts of Beijing, splash in their glittering blue
swimming pool, residents of lakeside Danjiangkou City, just 621 miles
(1,000 kilometers) away in neighboring Hubei Province, are packing up
their belongings. They are leaving because the Chinese government will
soon flood their village to expand the local reservoir. It turns out
these two communities are tied to each other by lopsided demands for
water, and by an ambitious solution to manage the coveted resource.
Exclusive oases like Majestic Mansion are putting new demands on
Beijingï¿½s dwindling water resources, and helping to justify the $62
billion South-North Water Transfer Project. The initiative will divert
water from an enlarged Danjiangkou reservoir through new canals to
Beijing and other northern cities, displacing hundreds of thousands of
people in the process.
Just this week, the first communities along the Middle Route of the
project began their resettlement from Danjiangkou to nearby Shayang
County. Itï¿½s expected that by 2014 about 180,000 people will be
relocated within Hubei Province and 150,000 to Henan Province.
The massive engineering project is the latest in a series intended to
tame and re purpose Chinaï¿½s abundant rivers. China has 20 percent of the
worldï¿½s population but only seven percent of the worldï¿½s freshwater
resources, according to the World Bank. The South-North project is
expected to supply 45 trillion gallons of water for hundreds of millions
of people by 2030.
The 787-mile-long (1,267 km) middle section of the route alone will move
11 trillion gallons of water from the Yangtze River in the south to the
Danjiangkou Reservoir on the Han River, a tributary of the Yangtze, in
The project also includes eastern and western sections, the first of
which is finished. Construction of the Western is slated to begin this
year but is hampered by the severe geographical, engineering, and
climatic obstacles of the Tibetan Plateau.
Though local news reports suggest the first group is relocating without
resistance, observers note that the Chinese government, which now has
considerable experience resettling communities in the name of water
infrastructure (1.3 million people were moved for the Three Gorges Dam),
is still struggling to manage the process fairly.
International Rivers, a non-profit organization based in Berkeley,
California, released a report this week indicating that while
resettlement compensation is improving, communities still have few
resettlement options. And once resettled, they may experience social
tensions. Local ecosystems might be stressed, as well, as more farmers
are forced onto limited arable land, according to the reportï¿½s authorï¿½a
Chinese citizen who had to remain anonymous to protect local contacts.
ï¿½The ecological cost impacts of the project are not really
[acknowledged] by the government,ï¿½ said Peter Bosshard, International
Riversï¿½ policy director. Specifically, he is concerned that the
government did not account for pollution in the Yangtze or around the
reservoir. A reduced flow may limit the riverï¿½s ability to flush out
pollutants, and squeeze higher concentrations of people and farms onto
the reservoirï¿½s banks, increasing the risk of erosion.
The Need for Speed in Beijing
The Middle Route has been delayed for years, but is growing increasingly
urgent as water demand in Beijing and other northern cities skyrockets.
Some 10 percent of Beijingï¿½s water usage is currently feeding luxury
gardens and swimming pools in new apartment buildings like Majestic
Mansion. These new demands add to the household, industrial, and
agricultural needs of the cityï¿½s 20 million residents who have already
reduced the cityï¿½s two reservoirs to less than 10 percent of their
original storage capacities.
Beijingï¿½s annual water demand will be 1.1 trillion gallonsï¿½enough to
fill 1.6 million Olympic-size swimming poolsï¿½by 2020, according to city
government estimates, and the city government has concluded that local
groundwater resources are woefully insufficient to meet the need.
Guo Geng, an environmental expert and director of an ecology center in
Beijing, says that the Beijing government is beginning to think more
about water conservation.
ï¿½But for now the city is in a water crisis, yet nobody in the government
is willing to admit that publicly,ï¿½ Geng said.
International Riversï¿½ Bosshard adds that large-scale infrastructure
projects like the South-North Transfer Project will not solve Chinaï¿½s
ï¿½Water prices should be increased. Water-intensive crops and the growing
consumption of meat should be discouraged,ï¿½ he said. ï¿½And the most
water-intensive sectors of the economy should be moved to where the
water isï¿½in the country's Southï¿½rather than the other way round.ï¿½
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