Northern China has long been the center of Chinese population, industry, and agriculture. In order to sustain its numerous farms and massive cities, northern China consumes enormous amounts of water each year. However, due to the fact that the majority of China’s great rivers lie in the south, the north has been forced to rely primarily on groundwater. Over the last few decades, as the population and infrastructure of China has grown, it has become apparent that aquifers alone cannot meet the water needs of the north.
China has foreseen this problem for quite some time. Former Chairman Mao Zedong was one of the first to propose a river diversion project that would take water from the south and bring it to the north. In 2002, 50 years after Mao, the project was approved by the state and work was begun on it (1).
Named the “South-to-North River Diversion Project”, this project is the largest river diversion attempt the world has ever seen. Set to finish in the year 2050, this massive $62 billion project aims to move 44.8 billion cubic meters of water per year from the Yangtze River to the barren Yellow River Basin in northern China (2).
China hopes that this project will put an end to water shortages in the north; however, it is far from ideal. Many believe that this entire project is only a temporary solution to a major problem and will have major environmental consequences in the near future. Perhaps the greatest concern amongst environmentalists is the possibility for water pollution on an enormous scale. China has dealt with major water pollution issues ever since the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in 2012. Because this endeavor will require connecting multiple rivers, pollution could possibly become even more widespread, resulting in less drinkable water for millions of people.
Another issue this project faces is the relocation of millions of Chinese people. Similar to what happened during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, an estimated 330,000 individuals have already been forcibly moved from their homes to make room for the Danjiangkou reservoir (2). This number will only rise over the coming decades as the project expands.
It seems China’s “Grow first, clean up later” mentality for much of last few decades may finally be coming around to bite them in the rear. Many agree that China will only hurt themselves in the long run, and that more internal changes need to occur. China must become more efficient with their water use if they plan on continuing to expand their population and industry even further.
Only time will tell whether or not the South-to-North River Diversion Project will be a success for China. In the best case scenario, China will be able to sustain its cities and agriculture in the north with the “new” water. Worst case could mean a giant environmental disaster that would leave China cleaning up the mess for years to come.
(1) "South-to-North Water Diversion Project." Water Technology, n.d. Web. 21 Aug. 2016.
(2) "South-North Water Transfer Project." International Rivers, n.d. Web. 21 Aug. 2016.
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