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The Yellow River’s desperate plight

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The Yellow River — China’s legendary cradle of civilization — is drying up. One day in 1972, as irrigation and industries in the north siphoned off more of its waters, the river failed to reach the sea. It wasn’t a permanent situation, but by 1997, the river was reaching the sea only one-third of the year. If the Yellow becomes an inland river, experts say, it could turn downstream provinces into desert. Faced with this grim prognosis, Beijing is considering drastic measures.

The plight of the Yellow River is the most dramatic sign of the increasingly severe water shortage in northern China. As it runs dry, households, farms and factories increasingly use water pumped from the ground, causing the water table in the region to sink three to six feet annually. It is the scarcity of water, even more than China’s shrinking arable land, that has raised questions about China’s ability to feed its 1.3 billion people.

Beijing’s leaders quarrel with the doomsayers, but they too have short-listed water as a priority issue. They now appear set to launch a project to transport water from the overflowing Yangtze River in the south, to the Yellow River, some 750 miles away.

Beijing thinks big
This is a $30 billion project, conservatively, that would pump water uphill in places and blast tunnels through mountains. In cost, it would rival the controversial Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River.

In scope, it would dwarf any waterworks project in the United States. The massive Colorado-to-California water diversion project, for instance, is just a few hundred miles long.

Along with large dams, large water diversion projects have fallen out of favor in many parts of the world - the U.S. hasn’t been building them since the 1960s. This is partly because water projects, almost by definition, represent a massive subsidy to farmers. But Beijing seems almost certain to push ahead on this one as it did with the Three Gorges dam - the biggest such dam in the world by some measures - despite international criticism.

The basic idea is that the Yangtze is subject to flooding, while the Yellow River is running dry, so transferring water helps kill two birds with one stone. But the logic doesn’t work for many experts. “It doesn’t make economic sense, and could have serious environmental consequences,” said Sandra Postel, director of Global Water Policy Project at Amherst. “The only reason it’s being considered is because there’s no healthy, open, democratic debate.”

Going forward
Work is already underway on two south-north canals associated with the project. In the east, engineers are rebuilding and expanding an ancient manmade waterway - the Grand Canal - which originally ran from the Yangtze to Shandong province.

It will be extended north to the port city of Tianjin. The central route, which U.S. officials have seen under construction, is designed to take water from a tributary of Yangtze and deliver it to Beijing. These two cities - combined population of about 20 million - have been rationing water for several years.

The third canal, the most controversial and expensive, would deliver water from the upper reaches of the Yangtze to the upper reaches of the Yellow River, where the two rivers are somewhat closer together. It is this route that would have to pass through rugged mountains, and would ring up the largest bill.

The three canals combined would, at best, be able to deliver about 60 million cubic meters of water to the north. “The water the project can deliver is nowhere near the types of deficit they are running,” says Brian Halweil, staff researcher at Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C. “It’s only about 5 percent of the deficit.”

Varying reports from Beijing suggest that the debate is not quite over. Whether parched China should simply import more food, rather than attempting food self-sufficiency, is a question that is gaining momentum internally.

But there are signs of movement on the western route. Experts from the U.S. Development Agency are visiting parts of western China this month, readying a feasibility report. “The Chinese have made up their minds that they are short of water and have to do the project,” says a World Bank water specialist who asked not to be named.

The idea of the south-north diversion fits into a pattern of grandiose schemes in Beijing, under the 50 years of Communism, and earlier. The Great Wall, the Three Gorges dam, the Grand Canal, the Great Leap Forward. This project has an air of inevitability, in part because it is an idea credited to Mao Zedong, during a 1959 trip on the Yangtze River, at the same time as the Three Gorges Dam. In ancient Chinese lore, the first emperor of China - the Yellow Emperor - was so named in part because he introduced flood control and irrigation systems.

Small ideas, big impact
China could use a powerful central authority to govern water today, to oversee water disputes among provinces. But many say what the country needs even more are policies to encourage conservation. In its parched north, the country needs to replace open irrigation ditches with water-efficient sprinkler systems, drip agriculture as is used in Israel. It would have to mandate new factories to use water-efficient systems, and water recycling. In fact, some point out, Beijing could subsidize or simply provide all this equipment for a lot less than $30 billion.

Many economists say the first step should be to charge a fee - even a nominal fee - for water. “Right now, farmers basically get their water for free,” says Halweil. “If there were even a marginal, symbolic charge, it would spur all sorts of conservation efforts.” But in China, as in the rest of the world, removing subsidies is a political hot potato. “There are many things the government can do” Halweil says. So far, “the talk is there, but the will is not there.”