Officials in provinces south of Beijing and Tianjin have privately raised objections and are haggling over water pricing and compensation; midlevel officials in water-scarce Hebei Province are frustrated that four reservoirs in their region have sent more than 775 million cubic meters, or 205 billion gallons, of water to Beijing since September 2008 in an “emergency” supplement to the middle route.
Overseers of the eastern route, which is being built alongside an ancient waterway for barges called the Grand Canal, have found that the drinking water to be brought to Tianjin from the Yangtze is so polluted that 426 sewage treatment plants have to be built; water pollution control on the route takes up 44 percent of the $5 billion investment, according to Xinhua, the official news agency. The source water from the Han River on the middle route is cleaner. But the main channel will cross 205 rivers and streams in the industrial heartland of China before reaching Beijing.
“When water comes to Beijing, there’s the danger of the water not being safe to drink,” said Dai Qing, an environmental advocate who has written critically about the Three Gorges Dam.
“I think this project is a product of the totalitarian regime in Beijing as it seeks to take away the resources of others,” she added. “I am totally opposed to this project.”
Ms. Dai and some Chinese scholars say the government should instead be limiting the population in the northern cities and encouraging water conservation.
The project’s official Web site says that the diversion “will be an important and basic facility for mitigating the existing crisis of water resources in north China” and that sufficient studies have been done. Wang Jian, a former environmental and water management official with the Beijing government and the State Council, China’s cabinet, agreed that the project “carries huge risks,” but he said there were no other options given the severity of the current water shortage.
The middle route is to start major operations in 2014, and the eastern route is expected to be operational by 2013. The lines were originally supposed to open by the 2008 Summer Olympics, but have been hobbled by myriad problems.
The diversion project was first studied in the 1950s, after Mao uttered: “Water in the south is abundant, water in the north scarce. If possible, it would be fine to borrow a little.”
In a country afflicted by severe cycles of droughts and floods and peasant rebellions that often resulted from them, control of water has always been important to Chinese rulers. Emperors sought to legitimize their rule with large-scale water projects like the Grand Canal or the irrigation system in Dujiangyan.
After the initial studies in the 1950s, the government did not look seriously again at the project until the 1990s, when north China was hit hard by droughts. In 2002, the State Council gave the green light for work to start on the middle and eastern routes; the western route, which would run at an average altitude of 10,000 to 13,000 feet across the Tibetan plateau to help irrigate the Yellow River basin, has been deemed too difficult to start for now.
Officials in Tianjin are so skeptical of the eastern route’s ability to deliver drinkable water that they are looking at desalinization as an alternative. Planners have more hope for the middle route, though the engineering is a much greater challenge — the canal has to be built entirely from scratch, with 1,774 structures constructed along its length to channel the water, since there is no pre-existing waterway like the Grand Canal to follow.
At the start of the route, the water level of the Danjiangkou Reservoir on the Han River has been raised 43 feet to 558 feet so that the water can flow downhill to Beijing. The government said the rising waters and a need to combat soil erosion necessitated moving 130,000 farmers last year from around the reservoir. Similar relocations are taking place all along the main channel, which runs through four provinces.
About 1,300 residents of Qingshan township have been moved to Xiangbei Farm, desolate land where a prison once stood. The villagers now live in sterile rows of yellow concrete houses 125 miles east of their abandoned ancestral homes. A government sign in the middle of the settlement says: “The land is fertile and has complete irrigation systems.”
The farmers know better. Each person is supposed to get a small plot of land free, but the soil here is well known to be exceedingly poor. The people also complain that in the government’s compensation formula, their old homes were undervalued, so many have had to pay several thousand dollars to buy new homes.
“There’s nothing here,” said Huang Jiuguo, 57. “There’s no enterprise. Our children are grown, and they need something to do.”
For three days last November, thousands of residents of a resettlement area in Qianjiang city blocked roads to protest poorly built homes and lack of promised compensation, according to a report by Radio Free Asia. Officials ordered the police to break up the rally, resulting in clashes, injuries and arrests.
Forced relocations, though, could pale next to larger fallouts from the project.
“We feel that we are still unsure how the project is going to impact on the environment, ecologies, economies and society at large,” said Mr. Du, the geographer in Wuhan, who carefully added he was not outright opposed to the project.
The central question for people in Hubei is whether the Han River, crucial to farming and industrial production hubs, will be killed to keep north China alive.
In a paper published in the Bulletin of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Mr. Du and two co-authors estimated that the diversion project would reduce the flow of the middle and lower stretches of the Han significantly, “leading to an uphill situation for the prevention of water pollution and ecological protection.” Though the study first appeared in 2006, the government has not altered its original plan, Mr. Du said.
Central planners decided on the amount of water to be diverted based on calculations of water flow in the Han done from the 1950s to the early 1990s; since then, the water flow has dropped, partly because of prolonged droughts, but planners have made no adjustments, Mr. Du said. The amount to be diverted is more than one-third of the annual water flow. “That will exert a huge damaging impact on the river,” he said.