China pushing water uphill
IPN News coverage
The Korea Times
Floods in China have killed at least 155 people since April and made over 1 million homeless even though the massive Three Gorges Dam was supposed to prevent such catastrophes.
China's latest and even bigger project, to divert water from the south to the north, is not likely to work either: like many countries, China needs more local rights and fewer vainglorious schemes.
China is pressing ahead with a massive $62 billion South-to-North Water Diversion Project despite high costs, environmental and social threats and early setbacks.
China has regular shortages, depletion of groundwater and high pollution (frequently covered up by officials) from industry, farming and sewage. Floods in one region did not prevent millions suffering from acute drought in southern China this year.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection admits 70 percent of China's rivers and lakes are polluted. To make things worse, northern China has almost half the country's 1.3 billion population but only 15 percent of its fresh water.
So the new project would transfer billions of cubic meters a year from the Yangtze River by three routes, across hundreds of miles, to the thirsty north. Proposed by Chairman Mao, the project was only launched in 2002 and has met immediate opposition.
The western route ― on hold following equal widespread protests ― would cross five fault lines, including the epicenter of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake which killed over 70,000. It also threatens India's and Bangladesh's dependence on rivers downstream.
Tianjin, a city on the eastern route, has already rejected the potential new supply as too polluted. And enlarging the Danjiangkou Reservoir on the central route will expel 300,000 people. Details are still secret but the seven planned dams are expected to flood and destroy towns, cultural monuments and ecosystems, evicting yet even more people.
China's record of large public works is poor. The Three Gorges Dam, the most grandiose and expensive scheme to date, cost $37 billion, flooded 13 cities, hundreds of towns and thousands of villages, ejecting 1.3 million people (the officially admitted figure).
Cracks appeared even before it was completed in 2006 and now the weight of the dam causes fissures and landslides in the surrounding area ― but there is no money to move the hundreds of thousands of people under threat. The costs and problems of the diversion project are much bigger.
These colossal, high-risk projects cannot fix China's water problems: it must reconsider its whole approach and decentralize control of water.
A few steps in the right direction over the past decade have allowed some collective management and transfer of water rights between users. Over the years, Shanxi and Henan Provinces have exchanged rights over the Zhanghe River they both depend on.
But, overwhelmingly, water-use remains inefficient because it is ruled by politics ― not the basic laws of supply and demand. The North China Plain, one of the driest areas, also produces half China's wheat, a water-intensive crop. Yet farmers get subsidized water, leaving no incentive for less-water-intensive crops or better irrigation (which leaks nearly 10 percent).
China should look to Chile, which went from similarly ineffective top-down water management to local and transferable water rights, starting in the mid-1970s. In places and times of scarcity, prices rise and encourage lower consumption. Fears for the poorest were allayed by a means-tested subsidy that encourages rational consumption and has largely resisted abuse.
Over the first decade, water efficiency in agriculture improved by nearly a quarter, with similar improvements in industry, from mining to wood pulp, followed by massive improvements in sewerage and water treatment.
This is relevant not just to China. Many other regions are short of water, while bad water management prevents universal water supply in many poor countries. Decentralization can improve supply and efficient use, ease tensions between different users and hold polluters accountable locally.
Giant projects are a constant temptation for governments everywhere but most violate common sense, accountability and human rights ― often to end in failure. Only the quiet virtues of local rights and responsibilities, in the hands of users, can keep the water flowing.
Caroline Boin is a project director and Nathaniel Clark a researcher at the independent economic-development think-tank International Policy Network, London. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively.