For nine consecutive years now, the northern part of China has suffered from a lack of water. To cover the growing demand, the authorities plan to transfer water from China’s central and southern regions up to the north. The central route of the South to North Water Diversion project was due to be completed by 2010, but the government recently announced a delay of at least four years. Environmental experts are worried about the negative impact of the project.
China is entering a deep water crisis with rivers drying out
The desert is fast approaching the front door of China’s capital. Just a few kilometres north of the city, rivers are running dry and the lack of rain is pushing northern China into a deeper water crisis. The North China Plain has suffered from water scarcity since 1999.
The industrial boom has also caused a shift of population from other parts of China to the northern and coastal areas, which has intensified the shortage of water supply. The Chinese authorities have seized upon a suggestion by the former Chinese leader, Mao Zedong, to quench the thirst of China’s northern regions.
50 years ago, Mao proposed to tap the water of two of China’s major rivers. -- the Yangtze River and the Yellow River. The plan was to build canals from the south to the north.
Three routes from the Yangtze River basin
Three routes are planned from the Yangtze River basin, where water is more abundant to the dryer north -- the Eastern, Central and Western routes. This is part of the so-called “Small Solution”. While the Eastern and Central routes have already been under construction for several years now, the Western route is still in planning.
The so-called “Big Solution” involves a diversion of water from the Himalaya Plateau, which would have a tremendous impact on the amount of water of Ganges and Mekong Rivers.
“This problem is gaining an international dimension,” explains Shi Meng, an expert on environmental affairs. “Some people are considering bringing water from the high plateaus of Tibet to supply big rivers like the Changjiang.”
“If projects of this kind come to realization it could get very serious for India and for other countries whose rivers are supplied by water from the Himalaya region. This is a very dangerous development. It could mean a conflict between China and other countries.”
Climate change-related and man-made causes
It is still uncertain why the North China Plain is drying out. Some scientists blame climate change. The problems are also partly man-made and a result of the region’s economic exploitation and population explosion.
Overall the amount of water usage across China has quintupled since 1949. Municipal authorities have started to drill deeper and deeper to cover demand. The underground water table is gradually sinking.
“We have to change the pattern of development,” says Shi Meng. “If we build huge cities like Beijing and Shanghai, with 20 or 30 million inhabitants, we will not be able to solve the problem of water supply. The other thing is to change the pattern of life. Now, Chinese people are getting used somehow to the American way of life -- consuming much more air, water, energy and so on. This thinking pattern has to be change very quickly!”
China’s granary needs water
The North China Plain is also the country’s granary, so water is a big issue for the farmers in the region. They plant water intensive winter wheat to have an additional harvest.
Without the winter wheat, farmers would lose 60 percent of their annual income -- an economic disaster for them.However, Chinese officials will not be able to solve the overall problem by diverting high amounts of water. They also have to tackle the problem of water pollution to guarantee the high quality of drinking water and sustainable ecological development.