BEIJING—On a Saturday morning in late August, about a dozen university students, professors, and middle-aged Beijing locals stand by a row of apartments in northwestern Beijing. Once an outskirt of the city known for its natural springs and reed-filled ponds, the area now looks just like another part of the sprawling capital: wide roads lined with set-back buildings, crowded with pedestrians. It’s home to some of China’s best schools, Peking and Tsinghua universities. One member of the group—an environmental society called the Green Earth Volunteers, led by one of China’s most well-known environmentalists, Wang Yongchen—asks a local if he knows how to get to the Wanquan River.
“That’s a river?” the man asks, and offers directions to what he says is a nearby ditch that sometimes puddles. After a few minutes, the Green Earth Volunteers arrive at a narrow canal holding a few centimeters of water. The bed of the Wanquan, which means “ten thousand springs,” is now paved over with concrete, the result of attempts to keep water from soaking into the ground when the canal was full. A pipe, once used to carry water into the small river, lies exposed to the sun, as do patches of dry ground. Ivy creeps along the sides of the canal, as if trying to reach what’s left of the water.
The Wanquan is one of thousands of rivers in China that have dried and disappeared after decades of declining rainfall, prolonged droughts, exploding population growth, industrial expansion, and a series of disastrous reservoirs built during the early days of the Communist Republic. The problem is most obvious in Beijing, which was chosen to be China’s capital in part because of its abundance of streams and freshwater springs. Beijing consumed 3.6 billion cubic meters (127 billion cubic feet or 950 billion gallons) of water in 2012, far more than the 2.1 billion cubic meters per year the city has at its disposal in nearby rivers and in the ground. The city’s water resources, about 120 cubic meters per person a year, are well below the 500 cubic meters the UN deems a situation of “absolute water scarcity.” Beijing has been supplementing the shortfall by diverting water from the nearby province of Hebei and trying to lower water usage in the city.
China has a severe water problem overall. Its resources of freshwater, around 2,000 cubic meters per capita, are one-third of the global average. Coal production, which supplies about three-quarters of China’s energy, already accounts for one-sixth of total water withdrawals. Between now and 2040, China’s total energy demand is expected to more than double, and be twice that of the U.S. The World Bank has put the annual cost of China’s water problems—specifically, water scarcity and the direct impacts of water pollution—at 2.3 percent of GDP but says it is likely much higher. About 45 percent of the country’s GDP comes from water-scarce provinces, according to a 2012 report by HSBC and China Water Risk, a consultancy. About 300 million people in China, almost a quarter of its population, drink contaminated water every day. Former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao wasn’t being dramatic in 1999 when he called the country’s water problems a threat to the “survival of the Chinese nation.”
But these shortages are unevenly spread. The North Plain, a region home to a quarter of the population, and which includes Beijing, is especially dry. Here, water tables are falling by two to three meters a year, according to the UN, and posing serious risks to agriculture and food security. Of China’s 22 provinces, 11 were considered “water-stressed,” meaning they have less than 1,000 cubic meters of water per person a year, as of 2012. One of the north’s main water sources, the Yellow River, has been shrinking for the past three decades, drying up almost every year before reaching the sea. Hebei province, which neighbors Beijing, has seen 969 of its 1,052 lakes dry up; some of its farmers water their crops with sewage water. Wang Shucheng, a former minister of water resources, predicted that if groundwater extraction in the north continues at current rates, in 15 years there will be none left.
The solution, as Mao Zedong first said in 1952, is to “borrow a little water from the south.” Southern China is home to four-fifths of the country’s water sources, mostly around the Yangtze River Basin. It took another 50 years after Mao’s suggestion for China to start work on it. Finally, on December 10, the first phase of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project (SNWDP), or Nanshuibeidiao, began operating.
The project’s eventual goal is to move 44.8 billion cubic meters of water across the country every year, more than there is in the River Thames. The infrastructure includes some of the longest canals in the world; pipelines that weave underneath riverbeds; a giant aqueduct; and pumping stations powerful enough to fill Olympic-sized pools in minutes. It is the world’s largest water-transfer project, unprecedented both in the volume of water to be transferred and the distance to be traveled—a total of 4,350 kilometers (2,700 miles), about the distance between the two coasts of America. The U.S., Israel, and South Africa are home to long-distance water transfer systems, but none on this scale.
It’s the kind of operation, observers of China say, that would never have a chance somewhere like America. The project requires the coordination of at least 15 provinces—several of them water-rich areas that will have to give up some of their own water. It involves building over hundreds of archeological sites and eventually through religious ones as well. Almost half a million people will have to be relocated. The cost is budgeted at some $60 billion and is likely to exceed that considerably. In the U.S., proposals for large-scale water transfers from the Great Lakes to the west or south of the country have been repeatedly put down. It would seem to be an example of the power of an autocratic central government to enact the kinds of far-reaching national transformations that, in a democracy, get bogged down.
But a closer look reveals that it’s far from certain whether the benefits will outweigh costs: Some describe the project as a “high-risk gamble.” And rather than showing off the power of China’s central government, in many ways the project merely highlights the limitations of the central government’s ability to manage China’s water needs.
The project creates a grid of water highways that criss-cross the country and can be adjusted to send water almost anywhere. That grid—the siheng sanzong, literally the “four horizontals, three verticals”—consists of the Yangtze, Yellow, Huai, and Hai Rivers running west to east, and three routes that run from south to north, each longer than 1,500 kilometers (600 miles) through both natural and man-made canals.
The first branch, the eastern route, has just started transferring water from the Yangtze River in Jiangsu province to the dry cities in Shandong province. A second route will start carrying water from central China to Beijing and other northern cities at some point in 2014. The third, western route may link the Yangtze River to the Yellow River by crossing through the mountainous terrain of Sichuan and Qinghai, at elevation of between 3,000 and 5,000 meters.
Borrowing water from the south isn’t as simple as Mao suggested. The government has so far relocated at least 345,000 people to make way for construction, the largest resettlement for an infrastructure project since at least 1.4 million people were moved for the Three Gorges Dam. Officials say their relocation is a sacrifice for the good of the country, but others argue that the government is overlooking the extent and impact of the forced relocations that are taking place. The diversion project also risks long-term damage to two of China’s most important rivers, along with the communities that depend on them.