China Slows Water Project

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South-to-North Plan Faces 4-Year Delay on Impact Concerns

Published in The Wall Street Journal

BEIJING — China is delaying part of its plan to divert billions of tons of water to its parched north, amid concerns that the massive project could cause previously unexpected environmental damage.

The four-year delay affects the central of three sections of the controversial “South-to-North” water diversion project. The project is designed to move water from China’s central and southern regions up to the arid northern provinces — in some cases hundreds of kilometers away along three man-made channels.

The total project, at an estimated $62 billion, is expected to cost nearly three times the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest dam, and to take decades to complete. It is expected to require the relocation of some 300,000 people and, when finished, to carry a volume of water along its eastern, central and western routes that’s more than half of California’s annual consumption.

The eastern route, which mostly follows the ancient Grand Canal, is largely done. The mountainous western route, which is the most controversial and technically challenging, isn’t slated for completion until 2050. The central section was supposed to start operation in 2010, but officials now say it will be launched in 2014.

In a written response to questions from The Wall Street Journal, the South-to-North Water Diversion Office under the State Council, China’s cabinet, confirmed changes in the plan, but said the new timetable represents an “adjustment,” not a delay. “We have taken appropriate measures to mitigate the environmental adverse effects that the construction projects may make,” the office said. The new measures include dams that could maintain higher water levels and ways to cut pollution.

The government says the South-to-North project is the only way to solve chronic water shortages. China’s water supply relative to its population is a quarter of the world average ratio, and most of the water is concentrated in the south. In Beijing, the capital, located in the north, the ratio is one-thirtieth the world average. The north’s main river, the Yellow River, has temporarily dried up in some places, and underground aquifers are badly depleted. The South-to-North project, first proposed by Mao Zedong in 1952, was approved in 2001.

Critics, mostly scientists and environmentalists, have continued to voice opposition to the project, fearing it will waste tens of billions of dollars and damage the environment while offering only a temporary fix. During 2008, local governments joined in the criticism.

The central stretch of the project runs from the Han River, a Yangtze River tributary in central China’s Hubei Province, north to Beijing. During December, Zou Qingping, the deputy chief of the Hubei Province bureau of environmental protection, told the local government that reducing water in the Han River would worsen pollution, according to several local media reports. China’s state-controlled media was allowed to report extensively on the controversy, a marked departure from the strict controls over coverage of the Three Gorges Dam.

The revised plans for the central section, approved during December, include building a dam and diverting water from the Yangtze River into the Han. But Du Yun, a geologist with the Institute of Geodesy and Geophysics at the China Academy of Sciences, said that even those measures may not be sufficient. His research claims that siphoning off a third of the water from the Han River’s Danjiangkou reservoir, as the plan calls for, will raise the risk of floods, increase sediment and worsen water quality — hurting navigation and irrigation for local residents, and limiting supplies for industrial and municipal use.

The new plan doesn’t address the more controversial western route, which would transfer water along canals carved through rock from the Yangtze headwaters in Tibet to the Yellow River.

-Ellen Zhu in Shanghai and Gao Sen and Kersten Zhang in Beijing contributed to this article.