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New mantra for China's big thirst: Less is more

It is China's latest grand attempt to tame nature. Three canals will bring water hundreds of miles to Beijing and other thirsty cities in the north. More than 350,000 people in the way will be forced to move.
China Megaproject Woes
Zhang Jiqing, a farmer, walks in January near the lake at Zhangyigang village in Xichuan County, Henan province, China.Andy Wong / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It is China's latest grand attempt to tame nature. Three canals will bring water hundreds of miles to Beijing and other thirsty cities in the north. More than 350,000 people in the way will be forced to move.

For many in Zhangyigang, a village of 942 people in brick and mud houses in central China, it will be their second uprooting. They moved to higher ground in the late 1950s and 1960s when a dam was built on the Han River to create the Danjiangkou reservoir, submerging homes and temples. Now their next stop is to be Dengzhou, a busy market city 30 miles to the east, as the dam is raised.

"We are made to keep moving," said Zhang Jiqing, 53, crouching by his bags of dried corn, which he fears won't fetch a good price because of the financial crisis. "I have a deep longing for my old place. But what can I do if the government says we have to move? It is for the good of the nation."

Coming under question
Now, that is coming under question.

Experts and environmentalists say it's time China took a different approach to its growth-related challenges, one based on conservation rather than engineering.

That may not come easy in a country with a long history of megaprojects. When China wanted to keep out foreign invaders, it built the Great Wall. When it wanted to move rice, it built the 1,100-mile Grand Canal. When it needed electricity, it built the Three Gorges Dam, completed in 2006.

"States that continue to have a monopoly on political power do tend toward these large engineering solutions," said David Pietz, a Washington State University professor who focuses on the water policies of the 60-year-old communist government.

Alternatives include using water more efficiently, desalinating seawater and recycling wastewater — to water golf courses, for example.

There are signs that government officials, many of them trained engineers, are beginning to heed their critics.

The most expensive and technically difficult leg of the canal project has been postponed for more study after scientists questioned its feasibility. Another leg has been delayed for four years to smooth the resettlement process.

Won't slake the nation's thirst
Perhaps most important, a key official concedes that the project won't slake the north's thirst for long.

"It can only be a supplement to the water shortage in the short term," Zhang Jiyao, the minister in charge of the water project, told The Associated Press. "More important, we must depend on saving water."

It was Mao Zedong, founder of communist China, who first dreamed of the canal project in 1952, remarking that the wet south should share water with the dry north. The densely populated north China plain that includes Beijing has only about 8 percent of the country's water resources.

The result: a project estimated at $62 billion, more expensive than the Three Gorges Dam. It would transfer 12 trillion gallons a year from the Yangtze and its tributaries to wheat farms and fast-growing northern cities.

The eastern route, to be completed in 2013, follows the remains of the Grand Canal, completed some 1,400 years ago, and will use pumping stations to raise the water 130 feet before it descends into the booming coastal city of Tianjin and Shandong province.

The western route has been postponed pending further study. As currently proposed, it would dam three rivers high in the Tibetan plateau and tunnel more than 60 miles through mountain rock.

Human and environmental costs
The central route, where work began in 2002, will take water from the Danjiangkou Reservoir across three provinces to supply about a quarter of Beijing's water and 20 other cities. In all, nearly 400,000 people will have to move.

Increasingly, the human and environmental costs are raising questions.

The Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest hydroelectric project, forced more than 1.4 million people to move, their villages flooded by a 410-mile long reservoir that the dam created on the middle Yangtze.

Chinese scientists say the rising water behind the dam has affected the geology, causing surrounding hillsides to erode. Local residents complain about landslides, but the government denies the dam triggered them.

China's environmental protection body has also warned of rising pollution in the waters behind the dam, as the once fast-running Yangtze has slowed. The quality hasn't improved despite a costly cleanup, the agency said in a report last year.

Now, as water tables plummet in the north, China is trying to tap the Yangtze, the country's longest river, and its major tributary, the Han.

Doing so would cause algae blooms and make the Han, already polluted by factories, even dirtier, predicts Zhang Haiping, an associate professor at the College of Environmental Science and Engineering at Shanghai's Tongji University.

Will more supply mean more waste?
Moreover, environmentalists worry that supplying more water to Beijing will encourage the capital's citizenry to keep wasting it.

Wen Bo, an opponent of the project, says the focus should instead be on reducing inefficient water use and preserving forests and wetlands, which act as natural reservoirs.

"This mentality of using this megaproject as a solution to solve water shortage problems is not the right approach," said Bo, the China program director of Pacific Environment, a California-based group. "We need another more ecologically sound approach to deal with this system, to view China as an ecosystem rather than an engineering board."

Scientists from Sichuan province criticized the western leg in a public forum in 2007, saying the water to be pumped exceeds supply in an ecologically sensitive area prone to earthquakes.

Ma Jun, Beijing-based author of a landmark book on China's water, says postponement of the western leg is a positive move.

"That's a sign of progress in China," said Ma. "The eastern and middle routes did not have much open discussion ... so I think this will help to improve the quality of the decision-making, because if they don't voice concerns then we might end up building some mammoth project and end up finding not much water."

On relocation, the direction is less clear.

Learning from the corruption
Officials say they are learning from the corruption experienced in building the Three Gorges Dam, in which some people were moved to towns where there were no jobs or land, and an official was convicted of pocketing $410,000.

This time, the money for resettlement has been declared "high voltage," meaning untouchable by local bureaucrats, said He Ying, an official in Dengzhou, the city that will receive the Zhangyigang villagers.

He said the Henan provincial government has promised just over a quarter of an acre of land, housing of at least 260 square feet, and $88 a year in compensation for 20 years.

The central government announced a four-year delay in construction of the middle route, pushing back completion to 2014, to ensure infrastructure is in place.

The government will "put people first," said Zhang, the minister.

Nonetheless, many in Zhangyigang feel shortchanged, saying local officials forced them to sign an agreement last November that they would move. Compensation wasn't mentioned, and despite assurances, many still worry about corruption.

Zhang, the corn farmer, says officials are offering less than half the amount of land that he currently uses and the quality is not good.

"There have been improvements in terms of quasi-open discussions on environmental impacts," said Andrew Mertha, an associate professor at Cornell University who has written about opposition to China's water projects. "But as far as relocation is concerned I see many of the same problems."