For over half a century, Chinese officials have maintained that the US$80 billion water transfer project linking the Yangtze to the Yellow river will relieve water shortages in the arid north, home to most of China’s coal, industry and agriculture.
A Mao-era dream, the project involves constructing three canals spanning China. The eastern and central routes are now complete, delivering water to Beijing for the first time in November 2014. Attention has now turned to the western route, which will cross the ecologically-fragile Himalayas and Tibetan plateau.
Although the project is huge, it was conceived without public discussion and details remain shadowy.
Offering a rare insight into the plans, Professor Jia Shaofeng, deputy director of the Centre for Water Resources Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, recently argued that the western transfer may be necessary to support the energy industry’s development, in a recent article on China Water Risk.
“If agricultural water savings cannot meet the rising demand in industrial and municipal water use, building the Western Route of the South-North Water Transfer Project can be considered,” he wrote. “Together, the development of energy bases along the middle and upper reaches of the Yellow River, and the construction of the Western Route, can achieve a win-win!”
His comments raise concerns that policy makers may give a green light to the western route under the upcoming 13th Five Year Plan. China’s next national development plan is being drafted now; it will be launched next year, setting out the framework for 2016-2020.
The controversial engineering scheme would divert 20 billion cubic metres of water from three tributaries of the upper Yangtze flowing across the Tibetan plateau (the Tongtianhe, Yalongjiang and Dadu rivers) to China’s energy powerhouse, the north-west coal belt. Along the way, it would cross Qinghai, Gansu, Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces.
The feasibility of this section is still under review and authorities have not yet announced a launch date for construction.
An alternative incarnation of the project – first proposed in the 1960s by a retired military general – included water transfers from six river basins, starting with the Brahmaputra in the west, and crossing the headwaters of the Nu (also called the Salween), Lancang (Mekong) and Jinsha (Upper Yangtze).
No Brahmaputra diversion
Although not currently on the drawing board, the prospect of any water diversion from the Brahmaputra continues to cause anxiety in India, where people worry it would dramatically reduce water flow downstream. Chinese officials have repeatedly denied plans to divert this sensitive trans-boundary river.
There are many reasons to fear an environmental catastrophe. The Tibetan plateau is the source of Asia’s major rivers: 1.4 billion people depend on these rivers for their water, food and energy.
The project would involve blasting 300 kilometres of tunnels through the Bayan Har mountain range in the Himalayas – where glaciers and river systems are already shrinking fast due to global warming. Pumping water over the mountains at altitudes up to 5,000 metres is another method being considered. Both options involve building 200-metre-high dams.
In 2005, Chinese geologist Yang Yong led a privately funded expedition along the proposed western routes. He identified potentially insurmountable technical challenges: the area’s frequent earthquakes and freezing winter temperatures would make it difficult to keep water flowing.
Yang Yong confronted widespread desertification at sources of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers: he found vast swathes of marshlands had become desert dunes and once flowing tributary streams turned into landlocked lakes. He is doubtful if there will be any extra water to transfer in the future.
Construction would also disturb the remote Keke Xili nature reserve, which is supposed to be a human “no go” zone to protect endangered species such as the chiru, or Tibetan antelope, which was hunted almost to extinction in the 1990s for its fine shahtoosh wool.
Yang Yong submitted a weighty report detailing his concerns to the highest levels of China’s government. The premier, Wen Jiabao, ordered work suspended pending further investigations. A decade on, it is unclear whether his warnings have persuaded policymakers to abandon the scheme, and the project remains in limbo.
One major obstacle for policymakers is the huge cost of transferred water, which is heavily subsidized. Water arriving in Beijing from the Yangtze costs three times the retail price, and water from the more technically challenging western route will be far more expensive.
Nonetheless, Jia believes water shortages in industrial areas are so great that energy companies – the project’s main beneficiaries – are willing to pay the higher price.
There are alternatives. Water savings in agriculture, which swallows more than 80% of water used in some provinces, are in need of development through better systems. They could be passed on to slake growing industrial demand.
However, it is possible the western transfer will become the preferred way to plug the gap.
Along the upper reaches of the Yellow River, in parched Ningxia and Inner Mongolia, energy companies are already paying farmers to save water in return for additional water quotas. (China’s central government sets strict water drawdown quotas for each province, and within provinces industry and agriculture face similar limits). Buying water rights from farmers costs energy firms more than five times as much as regular water charges – but there is still an appetite, argues Jia.