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China’s South-North Water Transfer Project: A Means to a Political End

by Britt Crow

The North China Plain is the cultural and historical core of China. It is no coincidence that the shores of the Yangzi and Yellow Rivers, between which much of this fertile plain sprawls, saw the birth of Chinese civilization and its flourishing over the millennia. It was the water that drew people to this region and, through manipulating and controlling it, allowed them to thrive. Even the place names in the region attest to the centrality of water: Henan (south of the river), Hebei (north of the river). But today most of the North China Plain’s rivers and streams are dry and the area is crisscrossed by bridge after bridge that pass over nothing but pebbled ground below. Today, place names that were once indicative of the abundance of water in North China are, like the rivers themselves, relics of another time.

A sign promotes China's South-North Water Transfer project
A roadside slogan in Xichuan County, Henan: “The South-North Water Transfer Project Benefits the Country and Benefits the People.” Photo by Britt Crow

Although China’s freshwater supply is vast in absolute terms, its average per capita annual supply is about one quarter of the global average. A majority of the country’s precipitation and groundwater are concentrated in the south. Water resources on the NCP—a region naturally characterized as semi-arid— have become increasingly stressed in the wake of three decades of rapid urbanization, industrialization, and economic growth. Today, the region generates more than 25 percent of China’s total gross domestic product (GDP) as well as much of its grain output. It is home to a quarter of the country’s population of 1.3 billion and more than a dozen cities with populations greater than 2 million—including the capital city, Beijing, at around 20 million. The region, however, is endowed with only 8 percent of the country’s total water resources. This geographic mismatch in water, population, and economic output is exacerbated by the fact that a majority of North China’s surface water has been rendered useless by severe industrial pollution.

Taking a demand-side approach to address the increasingly serious water situation in the region, the Chinese government launched the South-North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP) in 2002. The project, rumored to have originally been conceived of by Mao in 1952, is comprised of three routes that will transport water from the Yangzi River and its tributaries north- and westward toward Beijing. While the Western Route, originating on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, has been suspended indefinitely due to political and ecological sensitivities, the Eastern and Central Routes have been underway for more than a decade and are scheduled for completion in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

To put the scale of the SNWTP into perspective, when completed it will transfer 174 times more water per year than the city of Los Angeles receives from various diversions of the Colorado River. The ever-rising cost of constructing the SNWTP is estimated at around $62 billion USD. Additionally, the project has had serious social impacts, including the forced relocation of nearly 350,000 people whose homes stood in the way of constructing this massive project. Ecologically the project is also controversial, with many experts questioning whether or not the diversion’s source can spare the water. So why, despite all of these issues, has China moved forward with the largest water control project in human history?

As history has shown us, political power and the control of water are critically linked. Such was the case in imperial China and such in the case today where the transfer of water enabled by the SNWTP is a means to a political end for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). For the last 30 years the CCP has led the country on a course of “reform and opening up,” delivering sustained double-digit economic growth rates along the way.  Despite dramatically higher rates of inequality and the continued stifling of political freedoms, the overall quality of life for a majority of Chinese is better today than it was in the mid-twentieth century. It is on this improvement and the relative social stability it produces that much of the CCP’s legitimacy rests. In order to continue delivering economic development and an increasing material standard of living, cities in North China, the engines of growth in the country’s heartland, must continue to grow. The capital, too, must serve as a model of progress within the country and as proof of a modern China to the world. To fulfill these aims, the CCP needs water and they are willing to get it any cost—economic, social, and environmental—in the form of the SNWTP.

To be sure, the cities in North China, especially the capital, are in a very serious quandary. Drinking water supplies are dangerously low and modern urban sewage systems require a minimum amount of water to function. In order to maintain the status quo, let alone to grow, cities like Beijing, Tianjin, Shijiazhuang and Zhengzhou need more water. In this sense, one could argue that the SNWTP is, in a very real way, central to the long-term physical wellbeing of the people living on the North China Plain. But the project is also putting in place a fundamentally unsustainable growth trajectory that could undermine the stability so vigorously sought after by the Party. Regional and rural-urban inequality, both socio-economic and resource, will likely increase as the project channels water—the most fundamental prerequisite for growth—away from marginal areas toward key growth centers. Transferred with the water is opportunity, and rural migrants will follow it to new urban jobs in construction, manufacturing, and service. Cities on the NCP will grow larger than ever, necessitating the conversion of more agricultural lands and the provision of evermore water. The South-North Water Transfer Project is indeed a means to a political end, but it may not be the end the CCP had in mind.

Britt Crow is a PhD Candidate in Geography at UCLA, a National Fellow of the Society of Woman Geographers and a Graduate Fellow at the UCLA Asia Institute. Her research focuses on the politics of water and development in contemporary China. Ms. Crow holds an M.A. in East Asian Studies from Harvard University, where she also served as Editor-in-Chief of Harvard Asia Quarterly. She has also worked as a researcher at the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes (CSPO) at Arizona State University. Her posts on water and development in China can be followed on Twitter @bcrowmiller.

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De Gaspe Beaubien Foundation
12 years ago

We thank you for sharing this information. It is a worrying situation and we’ll do whatever we can to help you spread the word on this problem in China and any other countries facing simliar water crisis.