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China’s South-North Water Transfer Project: An Unsustainable Diversion

Dec 11, 2014

The South-North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP) is the most recent iteration of China’s intensifying effort to bring the environment under its technological thumb in a way that will maximally support its impressive and ongoing development efforts. Other recent examples include the infamous Three Gorges Dam project, extensive “weather modification” programs involving, for example, the production of more than 55 billion tons of artificial rain each year through chemical cloud seeding, and the flattening of more than 700 mountains near Lanzhou to accommodate urban development. Along these lines of grandeur in manipulating nature and its resources, the SNWTP is not only China’s most significant effort to date to move water from one place to another, it is the largest water control project undertaken in human history.

The project, two out of three routes of which were completed earlier this year, will transfer between four and 20 percent of the total volume of the Yangzi River (depending upon the season and flow conditions) from central China northward toward the sprawling metropolises of Beijing and Tianjin, as well as several gritty industrial neighbors like Shijiazhuang and Baoding. To put the scale of the project into perspective, the amount of water transferred to Los Angeles via the Los Angeles Aqueduct System is just 1.5% of the total annual volume slated to move through the canals of the SNWTP. It is the equivalent of moving half of the Nile River from Cairo to Northern Syria each year.

The waters of the South-North Water Transfer Project are like a lifeline, a vital input of lifeblood to the thirsty North, where in recent decades per capita water availability has dropped below one-thirtieth of the global average in many places. The capital city of Beijing and the surrounding region–a critical center of population, industry, and economic growth– need more water in order to maintain the urban and economic growth on which the Chinese Communist Party has built its mandate. But the South-North Water Transfer Project is nothing more than a temporary lifeline, a band aid for a chronically ill patient. By delivering additional water to North China, primarily for urban and industrial uses, the transfer project allows the true drivers of the region’s severe water stress (including widespread pollution that has rendered upwards of 40 percent of surface water completely unusable, rapid urban population growth, and industrial inefficiency) to persist unchecked. While the project is often touted by government officials as part of a broader strategy of sustainable development (kechixu fazhan), it is fundamentally unsustainable in several key ways.

First, scientists expect the ecological impacts of this supply-side water management approach to be considerable. These in include shifting patterns of ecosystem service distribution, the acceleration of saltwater intrusion into the estuaries of the Yangtze Delta, and the exacerbation of existing eutrophication issues in the project’s water donor basin. Beyond these direct environmental issues, there are also significant human costs that need to be taken into account. The construction of the project’s Middle Route alone has displaced more than 330,000 people near the Danjiangkou Reservoir, many of whom do not feel they have been adequately compensated for their relocation and loss of livelihood (for fishermen who no longer have access to the reservoir, for example).

Along with these ecological and human impacts of the project, by changing the spatial distribution of water resources the SNWTP will also have an effect on spatial patterns of economic growth and inequality, urbanization, and agricultural productivity. In order to keep the cities of the north alive and minimize the potentially enormous economic losses that are beginning to result from insufficient water for industry and urbanization, the water needs of particular places are being prioritized by the SNWTP management scheme, reflecting a spatialized power imbalance between the North China Plain and its southern neighbors in the project’s water donor basin.

While communities in the Han and Lower Yangtze River Basins will be losing access to water over the long-term, many government officials in these areas are quite pleased with the project. It has brought government investment to areas that have otherwise been left behind by the development efforts of the provincial and national governments. But the kind of development it has brought is haphazard and poor quality, typified by gauche luxury hotels without running water and rural roads being paved even as trucks and cars drive over them and mosaics of corn kernels lay out to dry on their edges. What government officials in such areas may not realize (or what they may not have the luxury of realizing, given the very real and immediate challenges they face in terms of poverty alleviation and other related issues) is that by sacrificing water now to meet the needs of the north in exchange for poor quality development, they may actually be sacrificing the future of their towns and cities.

In addition to spatial tradeoffs that make the SNWTP unsustainable over the long-term, there are also critical issues related to one of the central tenets of sustainability: intergenerational equity, or the idea of not constraining the options of future generations based on the decisions we make today. As a “band aid approach” that fails to address the root causes of North China’s water stress and instead attempts to treat the symptoms while allowing the underlying problems to worsen over time, the SNWTP violates this core principle of sustainability. It defers to future generations not only many of the ecological and social impacts of the project itself discussed above, but it also allows the water situation in the North to worsen as the band aid gives the impression that things are improving, at least for a time. Further, because of the physical infrastructure of inter-basin transfer projects like the SNWTP, the current supply-oriented mode of water management, narrowly concerned with supporting continued economic growth, will be locked in place for decades to come, even if resource use values and priorities change significantly over the same period of time.

The Chinese government’s pursuit of this fundamentally unsustainable approach to dealing with water stress in North China reveals a larger issue that merits more serious attention and engagement from China watchers. Underpinning China’s remarkable development over the last three and a half decades is the modus operandi of “grow now, deal with the secondary costs later.” This mentality is perfectly captured by the South-North Water Transfer Project. Government officials and citizens alike defend both this broad approach to development and the transfer project specifically by reminding critics that China is still a developing country, struggling with fundamental quality-of-life issues. Alternatively, we hear that the country is simply following the same model used by the U.S. and Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Both are undeniably true, but such arguments may not be compelling for the residents of the South-North Water Transfer Project’s water donor basin or of water-stressed North China who are left to deal with the consequences of such a short-sighted and narrowly focused approach to water and development ten, twenty, or fifty years from now.

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