The Asian Voice

China's river diversions could have worrying regional impact: The Kathmandu Post columnist

In his commentary, the writer says water woes loom in South and Southeast Asia as China pursues development initiatives.

The sun rises over Shanghai's Lujiazui Financial District, along the Huangpu River, on Feb 4, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

KATHMANDU (THE KATHMANDU POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Once the Mother River, the Huang He has now become a small, filthy stream.

Two decades of high economic growth rate triggered by a new generation of industries, intensive agricultural practices, rapid urbanisation and widespread promotion of water-related projects in China have conspicuously dented China's natural resources and water. The adverse impact of climate change on water towers like those in the Tibetan and Qinghai plateau have severely impacted both the hydrological flows and traditional spatial dynamics.

This has heightened water woes in many provinces of China and highlighted serious trans-border implications in countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan.

Books like that of Ma Jun's China's Water Crisis and Andrew C Mertha's China's Water Warriors depict the deeper nuances of water crisis across China. Jun, while commenting on the Yellow River-once the Mother River-writes, "the flow of this Mother River began halting in 1972 and in 1997 not a single drop of water reached the sea for a 330 day period.

The once mighty river has by now become a small, filthy stream that cannot even flush much of its sediment into the sea….

But the Yellow is no worse than situation on the North China plain, most of whose 300 rivers are open sewers, if they are not completely dry". More recently, the report Towards a water & energy secure China by Debra Tan, Feng Hu, Hubert Thieriot and Dawn McGregor and published by China Water Risk in 2015 maps out the entire dynamics of water scarcity in China.

This report states that 11 provinces in China ("Dry 11") fall below the World Bank Water Poverty Mark of 1,000 cubic meter including economic powerhouses Jiangsu & Shandong and the municipalities of Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin.

Nearly half of China's GDP comes from these Dry 11 provinces. It further states that eight provinces suffer from extreme water scarcity of below 500 cubic meters. China's water resources and farmlands are not evenly distributed in its 31 provinces, regions and municipalities.

The South and South West region has 75 per cent of China's total renewable water resources. On the other hand, 47 per cent of China's sown area lies in the North which has been the most important agricultural region producing corn, sorghum, winter wheat, vegetables and cotton.

This report also found that the North is generally five times more reliant on groundwater than the South. The Dry 11 use over half of their total groundwater resources compared to the national average of 15 per cent.

The Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences warned in 2012 that this excessive annual withdrawal of 4 billion cubic meters of groundwater in the North resulted in a threat of subsidence in 170,000 square km, equivalent to the land area of Korea, Denmark and Taiwan.

The Chinese Land Ministry survey in 2013 found that the North China Plain suffered from severe groundwater pollution, with over 70 per cent of overall groundwater quality classified as Grade IV+ that was unfit for human touch.

Water is a critical input in China's massive public health policies, unparalleled urbanisation, repositioned renewable energy, wider and decentralised industrialisation, targeted food security and poverty alleviation, and huge green environment projects.

Water is also a key element in transforming policy interventions prepared by the National Development Reform Commission.

It is now a top political agenda and along with air and soil pollution, an official war was declared in 2014 on water pollution too.

In 2011, a Three Red Lines approach to water management was operationalised which involved control of total water use including putting national water use caps, improving water use efficiencies, and preventing and controlling pollution. Amazingly, despite water scarcity, the city authorities in many provinces in China still regularly wash their roads and streets with water sprinkling vehicles.

In today's China, an overwhelming idea and project that constitutes a popular discourse is the cross regional river water diversion.

This ambitious project apparently conceived by Mao Zedong in 1952 and officially approved by the State Council in 2002 involves the diversion of rivers from the surplus South, mainly from the longest river, Yangtze, to water insecure and parched lands of the North.

Three routes are identified: the central (1267 km), eastern (1156 km) and western, in which the last route comprising of Tibet, Qinghai, Yunnan and Sichuan provinces faces insurmountable challenges of altitude, complex terrain and fragile ecosystems.

In order to overcome this, an intrinsically innovative project like Tianhe-a river in the sky-is being discussed and designed.

It proposes an 'air corridor' to facilitate water diversion. Interestingly this state-of-the art project works through monitoring the content and migration routes of water vapour in the atmospheric layers and interferes with that to redistribute water in certain regions.

The South-to-North diversion project, supposed to be the world's largest water diversion project, is estimated to cost $81.4 billion. It virtually demolishes the belief and natural demonstration that water always flows from upstream to downstream and towers to hinterland.

It set up the South-to-North Water Diversion Office under the Cabinet i.e. the State Council. Besides easing water shortage and improving water quality, this first diversion route running through 1,432 km is mainly made of open-air canals.

It aims to play an indispensable strategic role in conserving the ecology and preventing natural disasters. The first phase of the east route carries water from the Yangtze River at Jiangsu province's Jiangdu to Shandong along the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal.

Chinese news agency Xinhua mentioned that some 53.1 million people in northern China have benefited from this project.

This project was operationalised in late 2014 and transferred almost 10 billion cubic meters of water from the south to the draught-prone north. Pumped water reached cities like Beijing and Tianjin.

In addition, residents of seven cities in Hebei, as well as 11 cities and 37 counties in Henan, have access to the diverted water.

Beijing alone has received 2.7 billion cubic meters of water constituting about 70 percent of its water supply and serving 11 million people.

Beijing previously depended heavily on ground water that contained "too much incrustation scale such as calcium and magnesium, posing potential health hazards". Water plants like that set up in Guogongzhuang, South Beijing regulates water quality and purifies the water.

Water is channelised through the green belt surrounded 197 km long forest shelter canals and pipes from Danjiangkou reservoir in central China's Hubei Province.

This reservoir's maximum storage level is slated to be 170 meters and draws water from upper streams including the Hanjiang, the largest tributary of the Yangtze River.

All the targeted user destinations have been extending the green belt along the water diversion line that threads through Haidian district and the three suburban districts of Shunyi, Huairou and Miyun.

It is estimated that 13 percent is allocated to agricultural fields, adding roughly six billion cubic meters of water to enhance grain output in a province like Henan.

Though the Chinese technocrats see it as another transforming technological initiative, there is an array of institutions and experts that have questioned the very sustainability of these water diversion projects in terms of financial and technological resources, non-compliances with natural practices and laws and coping up with disasters.

If they spread to larger areas and other provinces, there could be huge societal resistance and could lead to unprecedented environmental dislocations.

The water towers in the south western regions including in Xinjiang, Tibet, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan have significant trans-border interconnections with the South and South East Asian countries. These hydrological flows in trans-boundary rivers act as lifelines in their cultural, economic and commercial activities.

Will it then trigger the phenomenon of dry lands, displaced economies, conflict ridden societies and pauperised communities in the lower riparian?

The writer is a senior professor in the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. The Kathmandu Post is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.

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