Originally published in National Geographic News
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 Beijing’s 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. It’s 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 repurpose China’s abundant rivers. China has 20 percent of the world’s population but only seven percent of the world’s 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 north.
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 report’s author-a Chinese citizen who had to remain anonymous to protect local contacts.
“The ecological cost impacts of the project are not really [acknowledged] by the government,” said Peter Bosshard, International Rivers’ 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 river’s ability to flush out pollutants, and squeeze higher concentrations of people and farms onto the reservoir’s 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 Beijing’s 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 city’s 20 million residents who have already reduced the city’s two reservoirs to less than 10 percent of their original storage capacities.
Beijing’s annual water demand will be 1.1 trillion gallons-enough to fill 1.6 million Olympic-size swimming pools-by 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.
“But for now the city is in a water crisis, yet nobody in the government is willing to admit that publicly,” Geng said.
International Rivers’ Bosshard adds that large-scale infrastructure projects like the South-North Transfer Project will not solve China’s water woes.
“Water prices should be increased. Water-intensive crops and the growing consumption of meat should be discouraged,” he said. “And the most water-intensive sectors of the economy should be moved to where the water is-in the country’s South-rather than the other way round.”