A main arm will soon open on one of China’s biggest, most troubled engineering ventures: the Central Route of the South-North Water Diversion Project. The project will carry water from the relatively well-supplied Yangtze River and its tributaries and channel it to northern China, where water shortages are worsening. The Eastern Route draws from the lower reaches of the Yangtze in Jiangsu Province and extends into northern China, and it has already started taking water to Shandong Province. The Central Route connects the Danjiangkou Dam in central China to Beijing along 793 miles of canals, which are due to start delivering water this month.

The Chinese government is celebrating the impending opening of the water line to the Chinese capital as a triumph, but the project has run over time and over budget, prompting even some officials who worked on it to voice regrets. Still, the project is part of the government’s efforts to offset chronic water scarcity in northern China, and officials are planning further extensions. There is still discussion of a Western Route, a dauntingly complicated undertaking that would seek to replenish parched parts of northwest China with water from the upper reaches of the Yangtze system. Meanwhile, the cost of the project has already ballooned to about 300 billion renminbi, or about $49 billion, from an initial estimate of 124 billion renminbi, according to official estimates.

So why has the Chinese government committed so much to this endeavor? Scott Moore, an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and expert on China’s water policies, discusses the reasons:
Q.

Why has the government invested so much in this project?

A.

As a result of the very rapid economic growth since 1978, the demand for water in northern China has accelerated beyond anyone’s predictions. But it was an idea that had already been planted. Planning was relatively advanced in the 1970s, and it kept emerging as a promising solution to the problems that China was facing.

This is a project whose scale is designed to match that of the problem at hand, namely, water availability in China. There are several layers to understanding that. The broadest one is that there was a great fondness among the first generation of party leaders for hydraulic engineering and water conservancy projects. During their years as guerrillas, the early Chinese Communist Party leaders lived and fought along the Yellow River. As a result, they were familiar with issues of flooding and drought, and once in power were especially concerned with how to control water. They were very interested in how engineering solutions might be able to block that cycle.

A more specific layer is that there was very much this idea that China was geographically imbalanced in its water availability. This project was a way to overcome what was, from a central-planning mind-set, a geographic strain on China’s development.

Q.

What do you make of the arguments about the merits of the project?

A.

There are two what I regard as good arguments for the project, and here I’m speaking as an impartial observer. Virtually every society has dealt with similar challenges of maldistribution of water versus economic development by relying on long-distance water diversions. If you look at the Western United States, you have the All-American Canal, you have the California State Water Project, which basically did the same thing. Israel has it on a smaller scale. The point is that every society has done this, so it’s not unreasonable to think that China would do the same.

The second thing is that there are plenty of people in the environmental community in China who actually believe that this project is going to save the Yellow River. And from a hydrological point of view, it’s possible it will. The Yellow River is essentially dead from an ecological point of view, unless it receives infusions of new water or there’s a dramatic cut in demand. There are people who believe that this project will help save the Yellow River by restoring stream flow.

I’m fairly doubtful that it will succeed over the long term, because human demands for water will continue to increase and will inevitably trump environmental requirements. Western developed countries also have big problems ensuring sufficient water for the environment in water-scarce river basins.

Q.

What problems has the project encountered?

A.

Water quality problems were dramatically underestimated, particularly along the Eastern Route. The Eastern Route passes through some of the most densely populated and heavily industrialized parts of China. As a result, there is substantial pollution from a wide range of sources. The difficulty of controlling this pollution was underestimated, and large numbers of water treatment plants had to be constructed to bring water quality to the necessary standard, at considerable expense.

There’s also the relocation of people. The relocation issue has obviously caused a lot of localized stress, although I don’t think it’s widely appreciated how sophisticated an infrastructure there is to resettle people displaced by these construction projects, as concerned as the government is with the potential for social instability as a result of resettlement. There’s a pretty robust set of policies to ensure that resettled people get housing, jobs and assistance.

However, these policies are not well implemented and often fall prey to corruption, so that assistance doesn’t always reach people displaced by the project. Large numbers of people continue to suffer tremendous economic and psychological stress as a result of relocation. The human cost has been enormous. But the government’s policy has been carefully designed to ensure this stress doesn’t translate into social instability.

Q.

Another issue is the expense of the project.

A.

People like to make unflattering comparisons between the length of time it takes to get an infrastructure project approved and built in the West versus in China, but I think this is a good example of why that’s sometimes good, rather than bad. The calculus has very obviously changed over the course of the project. To me what the outcome of the project shows is that the infrastructure planning bureaucracy in China isn’t very good at incorporating changing costs into the project’s implementation.

The best illustration of that is the relative cost of desalination. The price of desalination is falling rapidly, but nobody would have anticipated that a decade or more ago. As a result of the falling cost of desalinated seawater, the economic justification for the South-North Water Transfer Project is less compelling.

Q.

How serious do you think they are about the next phases of the project, especially the Western Route?

A.

My personal opinion is that it will happen, and that it will happen on roughly the scale that’s currently being contemplated. Namely, a large canal incorporating several tunnels and aqueducts, accompanied by large pumping stations, to transfer water from the upper portion of the greater Yangtze River basin to the upper portion of the greater Yellow River basin.

A lot of the justifications for the project, especially restoring stream-flow to the Yellow River, ultimately rely quite a bit on the Western Route being completed. And, secondly, it’s very much seen as a keystone of the western economic development strategy. My sense from reading the documents is that it is seen as a significant part of the western and northwestern development strategy.

Q.

If, hypothetically, the current leaders were presented with the choice as to whether to go forward with this project, do you think they would hesitate more now? Do you think their thinking about the environment and water issues has changed to the point where a project like this might not go ahead?

A.

It would probably still happen. There would be more institutional checks. If the project was up for approval at this very moment, I think there would be more opposition than you saw at the various stages of the project’s approval. But I still think it would go ahead.

And I come back to this, which I heard over and over again from both environmentalists and academics, that people really think there’s a legitimate environmental justification for the project. I think people don’t necessarily see it as just a destructive megaproject. They also see it as one that potentially has an ecological benefit.

Q.

What’s your general view of what will happen to the water situation in China, especially with strained supplies in the north?

A.

It’s a huge problem. But to be somewhat contrarian, I’m not that worried about water scarcity in China relative to some other regions.

The economic cost imposed by water scarcity in northern China will be greater than in most regions of the world. But unlike parts of the Middle East, Africa and even South Asia, China has the money, it has the technical capacity and the state capacity to deal with these problems. That’s not to say that some people aren’t going to feel the pinch, and I think a lot of smallholder farmers are going to be forced off the land. There is certainly going to be pain as a result.

And it is unclear, for example, whether China is going to be able to develop its unconventional gas reserves. Hydraulic fracking, the most common means of exploiting these reserves in the United States, is highly water-intensive, and in many regions in China it looks like there just isn’t enough water in local aquifers and waterways to support large-scale fracking as the technique is currently practiced elsewhere. But necessity is the mother of invention, and China has a pretty capable research and development infrastructure.

By CHRIS BUCKLEY October 1, 2014 in The New York Times