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As economy booms, China faces major water shortage

Water shortages, brought on by a bigger industry and larger cities, could cause the Chinese economy to founder. The problem is pitting farmers against factories, ecology against industry, and upstream against downstream.

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By Steven Mufson
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

BEIJING -- A decade ago, China's leaders gave the go-ahead to a colossal plan to bring more than 8 trillion gallons of water a year from the rivers of central China to the country's arid north. The project would have erected towering dams, built hundreds of miles of pipelines and tunnels, and created vast reservoirs with a price tag three times that of the giant Three Gorges Dam.

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But the plan's biggest section, which was supposed to break ground this year, has run aground after a group of academics and experts voiced alarm about costs, environmental damage and earthquake dangers. Though a rare victory for ordinary citizens, the halting of that part of the project leaves behind water shortages that could cause the entire Chinese economy to founder.

The source of the water predicament is China's own economic success. A bigger economy means more factories and power plants, all prodigious users of water for processing and cooling. Big cities are getting bigger, using more drinking, shower and sewage water. People are eating better, and growing more food requires more water. They crave entertainment, too; the Beijing area has 100 golf courses and a dozen ski resorts with man-made snow.

The result has been a scramble for water that is pitting downstream communities against upstream ones, farmers against factories, and people concerned about the country's environment against those worried that water shortages might be the mighty Chinese economy's Achilles' heel. Unlike oil needs, which can be supplemented with imports, water needs pose a much more intractable threat to China's rise.

"China is facing two prominent challenges: water shortages and pollution," said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based group. On top of that, "what's not receiving attention is the destruction of the river ecosystem, which I think will have long-term effects on our water resources."

The water diversion project, inspired by a 1952 suggestion by Mao Zedong, would have siphoned off about 5 percent of the Yangtze River's water volume, a massive amount equal to six times the crude oil consumed worldwide. The plan involved three routes, and official cost estimates have run as high as $75 billion. Two of the routes -- in the eastern and central parts of the country -- are moving ahead, though the central one is well behind schedule.

Some economists and geologists hope that their ability to persuade China's top leaders -- eight out of the nine are engineers -- to scuttle the western and largest route might signal a change in attitudes toward giant public works projects. "We shouldn't celebrate [big projects] as a triumph over nature," Ma said. "We should humbly think about how we got cornered into such a situation."

Thirsty north

About 42 percent of China's population lives in the arid north, which has about 8 percent of the country's water resources. So while flooding regularly kills thousands of people to the south, northern China is thirsty. That's why Chinese leaders turned to the giant diversion project, and it's what made the successful effort to stop the western route so unusual.

The opposition was spearheaded by academics and experts, most notably Lu Jiagua, a soft-spoken retired economist at the Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences. In 2004, Lu published an article painting an alarming picture of the western route, and in early 2005, he sent it twice with letters to Premier Wen Jiabo.

One issue was the project's sheer size: seven dams and 630 miles of tunnels through mountains near Yangtze tributaries in western Sichuan and Qinghai provinces. The water needed to be raised by 1,650 feet to be fed into the Yellow River, which would carry the water to China's north.

The project would cross five earthquake faults in western Sichuan, the province rocked by a huge 2008 earthquake. One of the faults suffered 18 destructive quakes between 1901 and 1976. Cracks in new dams could swamp millions of homes, Lu said.

"The Sichuan earthquake was a warning," he said. "This is extremely, extremely dangerous."


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