China Diverting Major River to "Water" Beijing Olympics

Kevin Holden Platt in Beijing, China
for National Geographic News
February 28, 2008
Landlocked Beijing has begun tapping a lattice of reservoirs, rivers, and canals across eastern China to provide plentiful water for this summer's Olympic Games.

As part of the initiative, more than 150 million cubic meters (39.6 billion gallons) of water are being diverted from the Yellow River through a network of canals stretching across three provinces to refill a lake south of the historically drought-stricken Chinese capital.

A parallel project is diverting water to the east coast resort of Qingdao, which will host the Olympic sailing competitions.

"Athletes from all over the world will come to China to join the Olympic Games [in August]," said Huang Feng, a researcher at the Yellow River Conservancy Commission, which is in charge of the river's diversion.

"So Beijing is implementing its master plan to provide the very highest quality of water."

Only the Beginning

The current rerouting is just the precursor to a 60-billion-U.S.-dollar hydro-engineering project expected to see three human-carved rivers carry water from southern China to the arid north.

The water transfer project is designed to divert more than 40 billion cubic meters (10.5 trillion gallons) of water each year from China's longest river, the Yangtze, and its tributaries.

But observers say the move will likely spark bitter disputes between those losing and gaining access to a precious resource.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project in Amherst, Massachusetts.

In 2000 "thousands of farmers in the Yellow River Basin of eastern China clashed with police over a government plan to recapture runoff from a local reservoir for cities, industries, and other users," she noted.

What's more, about 300,000 Chinese are slated for resettlement to make room for new diversion channels.

(Watch related video about conflicts arising in villages affected by the recently completed Three Gorges Dam [November 27, 2007].)

"There is certainly potential for more disputes within China over land, water, and pollution" as the project gains momentum, Postel said.

Historical Water Woes

Bordered by the rapidly expanding Ordos and Gobi deserts, Beijing has been historically plagued by thirst (see map).

The north's Yellow River, a lifeline of Chinese civilization since Neolithic times, has become so overused that it sometimes runs dry before reaching its estuary on the east coast.

In the last 50 years a population explosion, an industrial revolution, the rapid expansion of cities, and the spread of irrigated agriculture have fueled the region's water shortages.

(Read "China's Instant Cities" in National Geographic magazine [June 2007].)

This push for economic growth has devastated China's environment and waterways. The World Health Organization estimates that polluted drinking water kills nearly a hundred thousand Chinese citizens each year.

To help bring more and better quality water into the north in time for the Olympics, the government revived plans first proposed by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1949 to crisscross China with a matrix of human-made waterways.

Yang Xiaoping, a scientist at the Institute of Geology and Geophysics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said that the project calls for three new waterways to run along the east, center, and far west of the country.

In addition to new construction, the project will incorporate sections of the imperial Grand Canal built during the Sui Dynasty, which lasted from A.D. 589 to 618.

The Grand Canal stretches more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) between the southeastern city of Hangzhou and the North China Plain and was built to ferry rice northward from more fertile regions.

Portions of the ancient canal will be modernized and expanded as it is transformed into the world's longest aqueduct, said Huang of the Yellow River Commission.

Ultimately the canal will become part of the project's eastern route, transporting water from the Yangtze through a tunnel burrowed beneath the Yellow River and on to northern China.

The 745-mile-long (1,200-kilometer-long) central route will also be channeled underground as its passes the Yellow River toward Beijing.

Effects Downstream

But the most difficult part of the water diversion project, will likely be the western route, experts say.

This route will transfer water from the upper reaches of the Yangtze into the upper reaches of the Yellow River—a plan that depends on a series of canals and tunnels being carved along one edge of the Tibetan Plateau in western China.

James Nickum, a professor at Tokyo Jogakkan College, recently conducted a study of the diversion project for the United Nations Development Programme.

"The very expensive and technically challenging western route involves working on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau—3,000 to 5,000 meters [9,800 to 16,400 feet] above sea level—and overcoming some major engineering and climatic challenges," Nickum said.

For one thing, the route would require tunnels to be chiseled through the earthquake-prone Bayankala Mountains, Nickum said.

Chen Xiqing, an expert on hydrology at Hohai University in Nanjing, said China's increasing openness—fueled by the country's Internet revolution—could also make this section problematic.

"As an environmental coalition becomes stronger in China, it is putting more pressure on the government and pushing for more citizen participation in environmental problem-solving," Chen said.

"My guess is that this western route will become more and more difficult to complete as people have more freedom to speak out on water rights, the environment, and local ecosystems."

And conflicts over China's hydro-engineering projects in Tibet could spill across borders.

Aaron Wolf, professor of geography at Oregon State University, said that "all of the countries in Asia downstream of rivers originating in Tibet are wary of China's water development plans."

Tibet's Yarlung Zangbo River becomes the Brahmaputra when it enters India, while its Lancang River feeds into the Mekong, which flows through Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

(Related photos: "8-Foot Giant Catfish Caught in Cambodia" [November 19, 2007].)

Postel, of the Global Water Policy Project, predicts that conflicts over water could ricochet across Asia.

"By 2015 nearly three billion people—40 percent of the projected world population—are expected to live in countries that find it difficult or impossible to mobilize enough water to satisfy the food, industrial, and domestic needs of their citizens," she said.

"This scarcity will translate into heightened competition for water between cities and farms, between neighboring states and provinces, and at times between nations."

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