Why a New Water Project in China May Be a Catastrophe in Waiting
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In January 2007, an independent geologist named Yong Yang set out from his home in China's western Sichuan Province with a small team of researchers packed into two SUVs to find the unmarked place on the Tibetan plateau from which the Yangtze River springs. They drove over 16,000 miles through China's still-wild western frontier -- vast hinterlands where no roads cross, with mountainous terrain known only to local herders, antelope and wolves.
Yong is a bit of an outdoors adventure junkie (he was previously among the first kayakers to navigate the treacherous upper reaches of the Yangtze), but on this trip his mission was more profound: to investigate the geological and hydrological conditions of the Yangtze River basin -- and to evaluate whether a colossal three-part water-diversion project planned by the government, called the "South-to-North Water Transfer Project," could live up to its incredible billing.
The aim is to alleviate water shortages in parched northern China. But critics, both inside and outside the government, worry that it will be a giant boondoggle -- wasting billions of dollars, forcing the relocation of thousands of people, and causing irreparable damage to unique and fragile ecosystems.
China is facing severe water shortages. Both Chinese and Western experts predict that in the next 15 years, China's shortage of clean water will create up to 30 million "environmental refugees."
This problem is particularly acute in northern China, where climate and geology have always made water a limited resource. No one seriously disputes that bold steps must be taken to forestall a crisis. But the question is whether Beijing's ambition -- to build a $62 billion series of canals to divert water from the Yangtze River in the south to the Yellow River in the north -- will actually work.
Yong's research has focused on the western leg, which is perhaps the most controversial. When I first met him in his offices in Sichuan in the spring of 2007, he had just returned from his midwinter expedition. The 49-year-old geologist, wearing a dark sweater and black jacket, looked thin and worn, as you might expect from someone who had just survived for two months on canned foods, occasional fresh-killed meat, and cigarettes. When I saw him again that October, for an update on his research, his cheeks were rosier and rounder. In a Beijing hotel room we huddled over his laptop to examine spreadsheets of data compiled from his trip.
Based on his research, he believes the government's blueprints for the western leg of the water-diversion project are based on inaccurate estimates of the volume of water in the upper Yangtze. If the diversion plan fails, the consequences of faulty engineering could be disastrous for downstream communities, including Shanghai, that depend on the Yangtze for agriculture, industry, and hydropower. Reduced river flow could shutter downstream hydropower stations, inflicting blackouts on millions.
The Chinese government has in the past unleashed disastrous plans with the best of intentions. Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward, for instance, set targets for enhanced steel and grain production based on fantasy, rather than science. Unable to meet unrealistic goals, local cadres felt compelled to fudge performance numbers, ensuring that inaccurate data and corruption would doom the effort. More recently, the government's Three Gorges Dam hydropower project -- an attempt to address the country's rapidly growing energy needs that was completed this fall – has run into trouble. Even government officials acknowledged, after the fact, that faulty geological planning along the dam's route had caused massive landslides and created the potential for an "environmental catastrophe."
In recent years, a small but growing number of Chinese scientists, including former government scientists such as Yong, have joined the country's fledgling environmental movement -- not for ideological reasons, but because they worry about how decisions regarding environmental challenges, such as water shortages, are being made.