China opens key section of massive water project

By Xinhua, BEIJING

Photo taken on Nov 17, 2014 shows the heightened Danjiangkou Reservoir Dam in Central China's Hubei province, the starting point of the middle route of South-North Water Diversion Project. (Photo/Xinhua)

China on Friday opened a key section of a massive and ambitious plan to transport water from wetter central and southern parts of the country up to its arid north, including the capital Beijing, the official Xinhua news agency reported.


The $62 billion undertaking - dreamed up by former Communist Party leader Mao Zedong in the 1950s - is designed to supply China's parched and pollution-ridden north, home to more than 300 million people and countless water-intensive businesses.


The latest section opened begins at Danjiangkou reservoir in central China's Hubei province and runs for 1,432 km (890 miles).  A series of canals and pipelines stretching over 1,400 kilometers began diverting water on Friday from China's longest river, the Yangtze, directly to the country's arid northern regions, including capital city Beijing.


The completion of the water scheme marked major progress in the nation's enormous south-to-north water diversion project, the largest of its kind in the world at an estimated cost of 500 billion yuan (about $80 billion).

The project, which aims to alleviate water shortages in the north, is another engineering achievement by the Chinese. (The Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, the world's longest man-made river, was launched in the 13th century as a main waterway for grain transport between the south and north in ancient China.)


The launch of the new waterway will see water continuously supplied through the middle route of the south-to-north water diversion project.The middle route first-stage project begins at Danjiangkou reservoir in central China's Hubei province and runs for 1,432 kilometers. It can supply 9.5 billion cubic meters of water per year on average for some 100 million people in the dry northern regions, including Beijing and Tianjin cities, as well as Henan and Hebei provinces.



Water flows past an open sluice gate in the middle route of the South-to-North Water Diversion project in Henan province. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing yesterday received its first flows from the South-North Water Diversion Project, one of the most ambitious engineering projects in the country's history.

After decades of planning and $62 billion in investment, more than a billion cubic metres of water is projected to flow north to the capital every year through more than 1,200km of channels and pipes. Another 8.5 billion cubic metres, equivalent to 3.4 million Olympic-sized swimming pools, will reach provinces along the way, according to planners.


"Beijing is now formally receiving water" from the scheme, the city's government said in a text message.

The authorities say the project, which will ultimately have three routes and cost an estimated US$81 billion, will solve a chronic water shortage in northern cities.


Water availability per person in Beijing is on a par with Middle Eastern countries such as Israel, threatening economic growth.


Among the engineering feats involved are a 7.2 km-long tunnel beneath the Yellow River, the country's second biggest waterway, described in official reports as the most enormous river-crossing project in human history.

To carry the flow over one river in Henan province , engineers built a 12km long aqueduct, claimed to be the longest in the world.


The north supports nearly half the country's population and economy alongside two-thirds of its arable land, but has just a fifth its total water supply, according to the World Bank.

Looking over the Yellow river in 1952, Mao Zedong is reported to have said: "The north of China needs water and the south has plenty. It would be fine to borrow some if possible."


At a time when a single word from Mao could launch a project, studies were swiftly begun, but technical concerns and lack of capital meant the idea was shelved until a revival by former president Jiang Zemin , whose government approved the scheme in 2002.

Its construction has since taken on added urgency with water levels per person in Beijing falling to just 120 cubic metres, less than Algeria and roughly on a par with Yemen, both desert countries.


The project's eastern route, built along the 1,400-year-old Grand Canal, began transporting water from the Yangtze River to Shandong province last year, but has been dogged by pollution concerns and some fear the same fate could befall the pricier central section.


Officials have reportedly closed thousands of factories upstream from Danjiangkou and this year announced that the water was good enough to drink.