Thursday, July 21, 2011

Making rivers run north

Making rivers run north
June 28th, 2011 | Global Times
By Xuyang Jingjing

Recent reports indicating renewed interest in starting construction on
the controversial western leg of China�s mega water diversion project,
have raised deep concerns from environmentalists, engineers and local

Wang Guangqian, a hydrologist at Tsinghua University, said he and other
experts were asked to report on various proposals for the western route.
�[We] thought this wouldn�t happen for 50 years but it�s necessary now,�
Wang told a roundtable discussion hosted by the China Science Media Center.

The South-North Water Diversion Project is a controversial and mammoth
undertaking that will bring water from the south to help meet the needs
of the more arid north. It was first proposed after China�s liberation
in 1949 as a solution to southern floods and northern droughts.

The eastern and central legs of the project got the go-ahead last decade
and are expected to bring water to Beijing and Tianjin before the middle
of this decade.

The western route, however, is still on the drawing board because it is
far more technically challenging and poses far greater environmental
risks, say experts in the field.

�They can�t provide sufficient scientific proof of its feasibility,�
said Yang Yong, an independent geologist who has spent 20 years
researching every major river in China. �Their grand plans would greatly
alter the ecological system and the distribution of water resources in
China, and there are major technical and engineering difficulties,� said

Wang stands by his pet proposal for a western route. His plan would
divert water from the Yarlung Tsangpo River in Tibet by constructing
thousands of kilometers of canals and pipelines along the Qinghai-Tibet
railway to reach the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the northwest.
�This is feasible,� Wang told the First Financial Daily.

Wang is not the only engineer to propose diverting water from Tibet. Guo
Kai, a self-educated hydrologist, wants to divert water from a river
that runs into northern India. �So much of the water in the Yarlung
Tsangpo runs out of China, it�s a huge waste,� said Guo, who has been
pushing his plan since the 1980s.

His proposal would divert more than 2 trillion cubic meters of water
every year and stream it through mountain tunnels and pipelines that
would finally feed into the Yellow River more than 3,000 kilometers away.
Outdated ideas push megaprojects

Ambitious plans such as Wang and Guo�s have attracted a lot of
detractors. Many think their plans are actually dangerous.

�The idea that people can change nature any way they want is
ridiculous,� said Fan Xiao, an engineer at the Sichuan Bureau of
Geological Exploration of Mineral Resources. �This way of thinking comes
from the old belief that humans can conquer nature,� said Fan.

Many experts agree that is precisely the philosophy behind the entire
South-North Water Diversion Project, which has been studied for decades
and won government approval in 2002.

According to the approved plan, the eastern route will divert water from
the lower Yangtze to Beijing along the ancient Grand Canal. The central
route will take water from the Hanjiang River, a tributary of the
Yangtze, and bring it 1,400 kilometers to Beijing and Tianjin.

The non-yet-underway western route was originally expected to divert 17
billion cubic meters of water each year from the upper reaches of the
Yangtze in Sichuan Province to nourish the country�s parched provinces
and regions in the northwest.

Trillions of yuan

The project�s website says the construcion of the three routes will cost
5 trillion yuan and ultimately bring 44.8 billion cubic meters of water
from the south to north every year. The project is not expected to be
fully completed until the middle of the century but water should begin
to flow north to Beijing in the next two or three years, notes the website.

The State Council appears to have recently given the project a higher
priority. It announced at the beginning of the year that construction of
the eastern and central routes will be accelerated and pre-construction
studies on the western route would begin �when appropriate.�

The Yellow River Conservancy Commission, which oversees projects along
the much-diminished river, has been working for decades on the
feasibility of diverting water from southern rivers along the western
route. Every plan has met with controversy.

�It�s irrational to push through such large hydro projects,� said Wang
Yongchen, a water conservation advocate who has investigated the water
resources along the upper reaches of the Yangtze. �We should have
stopped the water diversion project a long time ago,� she said.

The two routes currently under construction have also been plagued with

There are fears that water flowing along the eastern route will be so
polluted after passing through industrial areas that by the time it
reaches Beijing it will be very costly to treat.

Along the central route tens of thousands of people have been forced to
move to make way for huge reservoirs that are needed to allow water to
flow north. There are also worries the Hanjiang River�s water resources
are not nearly plentiful enough to meet projected needs.

The most favored western route is supposed to draw water from the
Tongtian, Yalong and Dadu rivers, which run through Sichuan and Qinghai
provinces. If successful that water would open huge new tracts of land
to cultivation in the dry northwest in Gansu Province and the Ningxia
Hui Autonomous Region.

Competing megaprojects

Another serious, unresolved issue is the competing plans for the water
resources of the Yangtze. The southern provinces want to build more than
a dozen hydropower dams along the upper reaches of the Yangtze that
would provide electricity for the region�s burgeoning industrial and
urban growth. The local dams would stem the flow of water and make water
diversion impossible.

Critics say both the damming and diversion projects have failed to
consider a key factor.

�The Yangtze River is also drying up and yet people are still fighting
over water resources,� said Yang, the independent geologist who has led
teams of researchers to areas that would be affected by the western
route in 2006, 2007 and 2009.

He said his research shows the western route would damage the fragile
ecosystem in the upper Yangtze region which is susceptible to
earthquakes and mudslides. Winter freeze-over also reduces the flow of
the rivers and would prevent the diversion project from ever meeting its
target, said Yang.

Engineering obstacles

Yang�s views and research have a lot of support, especially from experts
from areas where the water is sourced. �The construction and
maintenance costs would be too great and there�s no guarantee that the
project would operate smoothly,� said Fan the government engineer from

�There are also many engineering obstacles and they will need to raise
water levels by building reservoirs, dams and tunnels,� said Fan.

There�s also a huge social cost to consider, warned Fan, as a number of
the required dams and reservoirs would need to be built in areas
populated by Tibetans.

�Major grazing areas would by submerged, and that will affect the
livelihood of herders. The natural environment is also regarded as holy
by local Tibetans,� said Fan.

Continuing to search for a way around the complicated technical,
environmental and social issues is not what environmentalists want to
see. They say these efforts only cloud the real causes of water shortages.

Instead of building ever larger megaprojects, many experts say the focus
should be on water conservation.

�We need to ask why is there a water shortage?� said Fan. �Inefficient
water use is still a major issue.�

Yang believes that adjusting human behavior rather than attempting to
change the flow of rivers, is likely to produce more environmentally
sound results. �We can try to fix things from this perspective, instead
of resorting to huge projects every time we have a drought or some other

Clear signal needed

Environmentalists are also frustrated because the government hasn�t yet
provided a clear signal on the larger issues.

�In China, decisions on major projects are usually political and so the
feasibility studies don�t matter much,� said Fan. �It�s hard to tell
whether the western route will eventually go through,� he said.

�Right now the whole situation is a mess,� concludes Yang, adding that
the central government should look at the big picture when making
decisions. �The development of hydroelectricity, hydro engineering and
resource-driven industries should be taken as a whole,� he said.

�The special interests and power struggles between departments or local
governments make the situation very complicated,� said Yang. �The
decision makers are not giving a clear signal to show where we should go
from here.�

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