China’s Water Diversion Projects

Factories along the Yellow RiverChina recently announced a plan to invest $10 billion to divert water to the country’s cities. This is on top of $22 billion already spent. But are these water diversion projects a good idea?

In the past few decades, China’s population has increasingly moved into the cities, leaving those cities searching for enough water. Building reservoirs, pulling water from rivers, and draining aquifers isn’t enough for some of the larger cities in the arid regions, so massive water diversion projects are underway.

A great number of the water projects in the past have used water from the Yellow River to supply cities and agricultural needs. However, with several tributaries running nearly dry and the flow of the Yellow River being affected, plans to supplement the water in the Yellow River with water from the Yangtze River are forming.

While the projects help drive the GDP of China, and the engineering feats are remarkable – water flows uphill in several water transfer projects – the cost to the end users often proves too high.

The cost of the projects are borne by the central or provincial government, so the city requesting the project doesn’t immediately see the full cost of the water. For instance,

In October 2003, the floodgates opened on a 10.3 billion yuan (US$1.6 billion), 10-year project, the first phase of a water-transfer channel from the Yellow River to the Jin River at Wanjiazhai in Shanxi, a province in north China. At the time, the city of Taiyuan planned to transfer 320 million cubic metres of water a year, while the Huyan Water Treatment Plant was built with a designed capacity of 800,000 cubic metres per day. Today the plant provides just 240,000 cubic metres a day.

Municipal water officials told Xinhua reporters that water has to be pumped uphill a number of times to reach Taiyuan – at a cost of five yuan per cubic metre. By the time the water has been treated and delivered to residents’ taps, the cost has climbed to eight yuan per cubic metre, far in excess of the price paid by those residents of less than three yuan per cubic metre. Water from the Yellow River has become too expensive, and the companies running the project in Taiyuan are selling it at a loss.

By the end of 2008, the Yellow River Water Supply Company had accumulated losses of 127 million yuan (US$20 million). Further losses of 90 million yuan (US$14 million) were seen in 2009. Large quantities of water pumped in from the Yellow River are simply dumped into Taiyuan’s waterways – treating it would only increase losses.

That is only one example.

Another problem is the lack of oversight to prevent environmental damage. Many waterways are polluted or so much water has been diverted that they are nearly dry. Biodiversity is reduced and ecosystems can completely disappear. Fisheries are dying off from a combination of those factors.

Critics say much of this expense and environmental devastation could be prevented by water conservation and curbs on pollution allowances. But there is little financial incentive for cities to do so.

Photo of factories along the Yellow River via Shutterstock

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Author: Heather Carr

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