South-North Water Transfer Project

Parts of northern China have a water deficiency, while parts of southern China have a surplus of water. Therein lies the motivation for one of the most ambitious engineering projects in human history. The purpose? Divert water on a massive scale from southern China to northern China. 

South-North Water Transfer Project South-North Water Transfer Project

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    The South-North Water Transfer project has been successful at bringing water from the Yangtze River and its tributaries to drier areas in the north. But at what cost? Is the project sustainable? Read on to find out.

    South-North Water Transfer Project China case study

    Within southern China exists the longest river in Asia: the Yangtze River, sometimes called the Blue River. Spanning around 6,300 kilometres, the river begins in the Tanggula Mountains in Tibet and flows across the country into the East China Sea.

    South-North Water transfer project, Yangtze River map, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The Yangtze River flows across China

    The Yangtze region was first annexed into China by the Qin Dynasty in 278 BC when it was taken from the Chu civilisation. In the centuries since then, the Yangtze River has proven to be an incomparable resource for the Chinese people.

    By 1949, the Communist Party of China (CCP) had largely taken control of the country, rebranding it as the People's Republic of China. As the CCP industrialised the country, it became obvious that northern China had significantly less water than southern China. This limited northern China's industrial capacity and access to drinking water. This was especially true in northeast China, where the northerly Yellow River did not quite reach. In some parts of northeast China, the lack of water is quite severe, leading to perpetually drought-prone arid land. In contrast, there is sometimes flooding in southern China, caused by an abundance of rain and bodies of water.

    A potential solution to this issue came in the form of a statement commonly attributed to CCP leader Mao Zedong: 'There is more water in the south and less water in the north. If possible, it is okay to borrow a little.'

    A bold suggestion to be sure, but was it even possible? Could such a project serve as a case study for the future of aquatic infrastructure?

    South-North Water Transfer Project China

    Humans have been reshaping natural bodies of water for centuries: irrigation, dams, canals. However, diverting water on the scale suggested by Mao was virtually unprecedented.

    The concept lingered with CCP leadership for decades, but planning became reality in 2002 when construction actively began.

    The goal: construct three massive canals that diverted some of the water from the Yangtze River and its tributaries to northern China.

    In English, the project is known as the South-North Water Diversion Project or the South-North Water Transfer Project. Because of the centralised planning undertaken and executed by the CCP on the project, it is considered a top-down approach to infrastructural expansion and water management. In a top-down approach, leadership is responsible for making decisions and passing the decisions down to subordinates.

    The Central Route

    The Central Route is a canal that draws water from the Danjiangkou Reservoir (which is part of the Han River, a tributary of the Yangtze River). The purpose of the Central Route is to bring water to Beijing, the capital of China. The Central Route is often called 'the Grand Aqueduct' and is 1,264 kilometres long.

    Construction was completed in 2014. The flow of the canal is based on gravity; dams were raised in order to allow the water to flow without the assistance of machinery. The Central Route has been successful in bringing water to Beijing. Dumping waste in the canal is prohibited to limit pollution so that the water can be used for drinking and cooking.

    South-North China Water transfer project, Central Route, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The Central Route begins at the Danjiangkou Reservoir

    However, the Central Route displaced some 330,000 people who were living near the Danjiangkou Reservoir. These residents were forced to relocate as a result of the construction. The route has also drained a great deal of water from the Han River.

    The Eastern Route

    The Eastern Route is not yet complete, although construction has been ongoing since late 2002. The goal of the Eastern Route is to divert water from the Yangtze River to parts of northern China, especially to major cities like Tianjin. In fact, as of 2017, water has reached Tianjin.

    The Eastern Route is largely an upgrade and overhaul to parts of a pre-existing canal called 'the Grand Canal,' the origins of which stretch all the way back to the 5th century BC.

    Unlike the Grand Aqueduct, the Grand Canal makes use of pumping stations to enable water to flow. In fact, the completed project is expected to include over 20 pumping stations and will span over 1,100 kilometres.

    The Western Route

    Construction on the Western Route has not yet begun.

    Hypothetically, the Western Route would divert water from several tributary rivers of the Yangtze River in southwestern China and channel that water toward the Yellow River, for the purpose of sending more water toward northern regions like Inner Mongolia, Qinghai, and Gansu.

    A major issue prohibiting the construction of the Western Route is the fact that these tributary rivers extend outside of Chinese territory. The Mekong River, a massive river in and of itself, provides water for much of southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia. Similarly, the Brahmaputra River flows through India and Bangladesh. Under current plans for the Western Route, a significant amount of water would be diverted away from other countries in Asia.

    South-North Water Transfer Project China cost

    Diverting rivers is not cheap. Building and maintaining canals, dams, and pumping stations cost a great deal of money. Thus far, the project has cost upwards of £65 billion. The Eastern route is not complete, and construction on the Western Route has not even started!

    As the project creates new aquatic landscapes, there are financial benefits to reap. The engineering feats promote tourism, and new access to water supports economic needs (water for crops, drinking water, industrial water) and water-based leisure (such as fishing).

    Environmental impact of the South-North Water Transfer Project in China

    Ideally, the South-North Water Transfer Project should simultaneously resolve drought issues in the north and flooding problems in the south. Though the project remains incomplete, the successful diversion of water via the Central Route suggests the hypothetical goal may be achievable.

    However, the environmental impact of the South-North Water Transfer Project has been mixed. On the one hand, the diversion of water to arid parts of northern China has aided parched northern ecosystems and agriculture. On the other hand, it has drained parts of the Han River. And despite regulations, the Central Route has also been polluted because some tributary rivers are often used as dumping grounds.

    Water and waste from the canals have leaked into local pipelines along the routes. There is concern that waterborne diseases may be transported from the south to the north, although water treatment plants have been built to attempt to mitigate this risk. Additionally, the radical reshaping of the landscape has disrupted natural ecosystems, especially for fish.

    South-North Water Transfer Project China pros and cons

    Let's have a look at some of the pros and cons of the South-North Water Transfer Project in China.

    Pros:

    • The project has successfully diverted water from southern China to northern China.
    • The project has helped to mitigate drought issues in the north and flooding issues in the south.
    • The engineering accomplishment can be a source of national pride and a reason for tourism.
    • The new access to water helps sustain northern industries and infrastructure that rely on water to function.
    • The new access to water also allows for water-based leisure activities.

    Cons:

    • The project is very expensive.
    • Project construction has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
    • The project has spread pollution.
    • There are concerns that the project will allow waterborne illnesses to spread from the south to the north.
    • The project has disrupted natural aquatic ecosystems.
    • Tributary rivers may be drained more than anticipated, as seen with the Han River.
    • The Western Route can likely not be completed without threatening the water supplies of India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

    So, can the South-North Water Transfer Project serve as a case study for nations in similar situations?

    Qua Baoxing, the former vice-minister of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, has said that the project is not sustainable. Between the high monetary cost and spread of pollution, the project is increasingly difficult to manage, maintain, and afford.1

    Alternatives to freshwater diversion include collecting and repurposing rainwater; recycling wastewater; and desalination of ocean water. But for now, China will continue to invest in the South-North Water Transfer Project, which remains one of the largest engineering feats in human history.

    South-North Water Transfer Project - Key takeaways

    • The South-North Water Transfer Project is meant to divert water from southern China to northern China, which lacks water. Most of the water comes from the Yangtze River or its tributaries.
    • The project was conceived in the 1950s. Construction began in 2002.
    • The Central Route has been completed. It diverts water to Beijing. The Eastern Route is in progress. The Western Route has not been started.
    • The project has cost over £65 billion so far.
    • Although the project has so far been successful in diverting water from the south to the north, the project may be unsustainable due to its high cost and the spread of pollution.

    References

    1. Yue, W. (2020, May 14). South-North Water Transfer Project not sustainable, says Chinese official. China Dialogue. Retrieved from https://chinadialogue.net/en/cities/6737-south-north-water-transfer-project-not-sustainable-says-chinese-official/
    2. Fig. 1: Yangtze River map (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yangtze_River_Route.svg) by קרלוס הגדול (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Special:Contributions/%D7%A7%D7%A8%D7%9C%D7%95%D7%A1_%D7%94%D7%92%D7%93%D7%95%D7%9C) licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    3. Fig. 3: The Central Route (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:South%E2%80%93North_Water_Transfer_Project_Central_route_starting_point_taocha.jpg) by Nsbdgc (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Special:Contributions/Nsbdgc) licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about South-North Water Transfer Project

    What is the purpose of China's South-North Water Transfer Project? 

    The purpose of the South-North Water Transfer Project is to divert water from flood-prone southern China to drought-prone and arid northern China.

    When did the South-to-North Water Transfer Project start? 

    The South-to-North Water Transfer Project officially began in 2002, although it had been conceptualised and planned since the early 1950s. 

    How does the South-North Water Transfer Project work? 

    There are two large canals that move water from parts of the Yangtze River in southern China up to parts of northern China. The Central Route uses mostly gravity, while the Eastern Route moves water through pumping stations. A proposed third canal, the Western Route, has not been started yet.

    What are the disadvantages of the South-North Water Transfer Project? 

    The South-North Water Transfer Project is very expensive; has spread pollution; has displaced hundreds of thousands of people; has disrupted aquatic ecosystems; and may spread waterborne disease.

    Is the South-North Water Transfer Project sustainable? 

    Because the project has been so expensive and has spread pollution, the South-North Water Transfer Project may not be sustainable. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who is alleged to have said the following quote?'There is more water in the south and less water in the north. If possible, it is okay to borrow a little.'

    In the South-North Water Transfer Project, most of the water is being diverted from which river and its tributaries? 

    The Eastern Route is largely an upgrade of which older system? 

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