Science, Tech & Environment

Chinese water torture?


Residents play at the flooded bank of the Yangtze River on September 6, 2008 in Wuhan of Hubei Province, China.


China Photos

Imagine channeling the Mississippi River to quench the thirst and meet the other water needs of Washington, New York and Boston.

That's a pretty good approximation of what China is up to these days, where no engineering idea can apparently be big, bold, or controversial enough.

In today's must-read story about China, Edward Wong in the New York Times lays out Beijing's latest ambitous plan.

Reporting from Danjiangkou in the country's north, here's how he frames China's worsening water crisis:

North China is dying. A chronic drought is ravaging farmland. The Gobi Desert is inching south. The Yellow River, the so-called birthplace of Chinese civilization, is so polluted it can no longer supply drinking water. The rapid growth of megacities — 22 million people in Beijing and 12 million in Tianjin alone — has drained underground aquifers that took millenniums to fill.

Not atypically, the Chinese government has a grand and expensive solution: Divert at least six trillion gallons of water each year hundreds of miles from the other great Chinese river, the Yangtze, to slake the thirst of the north China plain and its 440 million people.

That's the big idea behind what Bejing calls the South-North Water Diversion Project, a plan that reportedly comes with a price tag of $62 billion, about twice the cost of the country's other gargantuan water project — the Three Gorges Dam.

And like the Three Gorges project, this one is also coming under harsh criticism.

Some 350,000 villagers along the river's middle route will be relocated, while thousands of people in Hubei have already been moved to the grounds of a former prison, Wong reports.

Meanwhile, scientists worry that the government hasn't done enough research. In particular, they're concerned that the re-channeling will destroy the ecology of other Chinese rivers. Pollution, too, is a big problem.

“We feel that we are still unsure how the project is going to impact on the environment, ecologies, economies and society at large,” Du Yun, a geographer at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan told the Times.

Like so many things in modern China, this idea started with Mao back in the 1950s.

“Water in the south is abundant, water in the north scarce. If possible, it would be fine to borrow a little,” he said.

We shall see.