South to North Water Transfer, China, 2050

The Chinese government is building a $62 billion South-North Water Transfer Project. The project would divert 44.8 billion cubic meters of water per year from the Yangtze River in southern China to the Yellow River Basin in arid northern China.

This is equivalent to nearly half the amount of water consumed in California annually. It will also displace hundreds of thousands of people. An estimated 330,000 people were recently being relocated for the expansion of the Danjiangkou reservoir, which marks the beginning of the project’s middle route. While the resettlement program included some improvements over the Three Gorges Project, it was eventually carried out against the resistance of affected people.

Map of South-North Water Transfer Project Routes – New York Times

The project is being built in an attempt to curb the over-withdrawal of groundwater and supply more water to industry, cities, and China’s breadbasket in the north. The government plans to complete the Eastern and Central Routes by 2013/14 and the controversial Western Route by 2050.

Climate change, water pollution, and frequent droughts are exerting huge pressures on major northern cities such as Beijing and Tianjin.

Recent droughts illustrated that Central China has no excess water that could be transferred to the thirsty North. In the spring of 2011, water levels in the Han river and Danjiangkou reservoir fell so low that people did not have sufficient water for drinking and sowing their crops – let alone for sending to Beijing.

Many are concerned that the project could exacerbate water pollution problems. Pollution from factories along the Eastern Route may render the water unfit to drink. Meanwhile, the diversion of water from the Yangtze River Basin to the north is likely to exacerbate pollution problems on the Yangtze – problems that have worsened since the construction of the Three Gorges Dam.

Some experts argue that conservation and increasing water use efficiency can help mitigate China’s water problems without jeopardizing the environment displacing large population groups.