Publication, Commentary and Analysis

South-North Water Transfer Project

October 2014

Jesper Svensson, Visiting Fellow with FNVA, in conversation with Jianxin Mu – professor at Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research (IWHR), Ministry of Water Resources, China and Yang Yong – independent geologist and director of the Hengduan Mountain Research Institute on the South-North Water Transfer Project

Question: Chinese experts on the biggest water-diversion scheme in the world

Soon the second leg of the world’s biggest water-diversion project will open: the Central Route of the South-North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP). From 31 October the project will transfer water northward from the Yangtze River system to supply northern China, a region struggling with demand and supply water imbalances. The central route will see 9.5 billion cubic meters of water per year pumped through more than 1,200 kms of canals and pipes from the Danjiangkou dam in central China to the northern provinces of Henan, Hebei and to Beijing. The eastern route, which opened last year, draws 14.8 billion cubic meters of water a year from the lower reaches of the Yangtze in Jiangsu province to the dry cities in Shandong province.

But major pollution issues, mammoth engineering investments and growing pressure on water resources in southern China have called into question the rationality of this high-risk industrial project. In a Chinese newspaper last year, Zhang Jiyao, the former director of the State Department office in charge over the South to North Water Diversion project, declared that the costs for the eastern and middle routes have ballooned to about 300 billion Yuan, $49 billion at current exchange rates, from the earlier estimate of 124 billion Yuan. Yet, despite the contentious politics of the SNWTP and the fact China has lost 27,000 rivers since the 1950s, the CCP seems determined to move its engineering-approach further inland.

With the SNWTP’s eastern and middle route completed, what will happen with the controversial western route from the Tibetan-Qinghai Plateau? We asked two Chinese experts for their views

What is the status of the Middle Route for the South to North Water Diversion Project?

Jianxin Mu – professor at Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research (IWHR), Ministry of Water Resources, China:

Real time data from the Yangtze Water Resources Commission at 14:00 hrs on October 14 showed the water level of the Danjiangkou reservoir had reached 160 meters, which means that the water conditions for the central route has been met. In late October, 9.5 billion m3 will be transferred and around 30% of Beijing’s annual water consumption will come from the central route. As for water quality, a lot of pollution control measures have been undertaken to guarantee safe supply. We want to avoid the pollution problems the project faced along the Eastern route

A key issue is the expense of the project. What is the risk that cost’s might outweigh benefits for the project?

Jianxin Mu:

Cost recovery is a problem. National Development and Reform Commission has approved the organisation of the price of water, and based on full cost the price of the transferred water will be twice as much as what Beijing pays now. The current price for Beijing residents (not including water resource and sewage treatment) is 1.7 RMB/m3 but the price of transferred water will be 3 RMB/m3. At present, however, it’s not decided whether this price will be subsidised by government or shared by Beijing citizens.

Yang Yong:

As for the central route of the SNWTP, the total investment is roughly 250 billion Yuan for transferring 9.5 billion m3. With investment per m3 around 25 Yuan and water price is 10 % of it, the price of diversion water is about 2-3 Yuan higher than the current price of water. Yet, if we take into account other costs such as operation and maintenance, ecological compensation costs the water price may be more than 10 Yuan for the recipients in Beijing. As a result, pricing has become a dilemma: if the water-price is too high people cannot afford to use it but if it is too low it will be difficult to recover the costs.

Although the central leg is completed, there are from my point of you at least three factors that put the project at stake. First, the Han River, the largest tributary of the Yangtze River, has been hit by severe droughts in recent years which raises questions about whether the water can meet the needs of the water diversion project. Secondly, the SNWTP has pushed Shaanxi Province in the upper reaches of the Han River to implement a diversion project to take 1.5 billion m3 water to supplement its Wei river. This project will inevitably reduce the amount of water storage to Danjiangkou reservoir. Thirdly, provinces such as Henan and Hebei need extra engineering projects to divert the water from the main route to distribute it to their own provinces. These smaller projects are costly and due to budget constraints local governments can’t cough up the cash.

Does the South to North Water Diversion Project have any ecological benefits?

Jianxin Mu – (IWHR):

Yes, I think so. In addition to provide water for domestic, industrial and agricultural use along the route, I believe the project can at least partly address over-exploitation of groundwater resources. But this can only be done by preventing transferring polluted water as well as raising water prices.

Yang Yong – (geologist):

The central route can reduce groundwater overdraft and restore groundwater circulation systems in the north but you cannot divert a third of the water in the Danjiangkou reservoir without reshaping the flow volume and causing environmental problems to the Han River. To deal with the negative impacts for Hubei Province, the government’s response has been to build another diversion project to transfer water from the Yangtze to the Han. Regarding ecological benefits, I’m skeptical. The key is the ability to change the water management practices; change past development-pattern and people’s awareness of water resources attitude. Without putting a limit on human demand for water, the SNWTP and the current development-model will cause more harm to ecosystems.

Last year the Yellow River Basin Commission (YRCC) of the Ministry of Water Resources posted an article on their website about plans to divert the Yarlung-Tsangpo / Brahmaputra:

How serious is China about the Western Route of the South To North Water Diversion Project?

Jianxin Mu:

It is true that the YRCC has proposed this idea but you need to have in mind that it is an initial feasibility study of many studies. It needs to get the approval from the MWR, the National Development and Reform Commission and other departments. To my mind, the western route will not be implemented within a decade.

Yang Yong:

First, I think there are serious mistakes in hydrological data in this water-diversion article uploaded by the YRCC. Secondly, the Central Government has always dismissed the Great Western Route. Thirdly, from a shipping point of view, the sediment condition in the Yellow River is so bad for navigation/shipping that it is not necessary to divert waters into the Yellow River basin for realising shipping.

In India, under the new Narendra Modi government, there is talk of reviving the Inter-Linking of Rivers Project. What can India learn from China’s experience with the world’s biggest water-diversion project?

Jianxin Mu:

I think its rational for India to think in terms of water-diversions given the uneven geographical distribution of water resources. China has strong technical and engineering strength’s but we are still facing problems. Judging from our experience with the overwhelming funding and policy support for the SNWTP, its difficult to achieve engineering-projects without very strong central government coordination and determination.

Yang Yong:

At present, I think humanity is a geophysical force. In India, China and the rest of the world the human-interventions and engineering approaches many times generates a vicious circle with no end in sight. It is time India and China abandon the traditional development-model