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June 11, 2014

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Myriad water diversion projects suggest rapid degradation of local environment

LAST Thursday a German reporter expressed her interest in China’s ongoing South-to-North water diversion project. To my embarrassment, I did not know enough about the project to enlighten her. I found it necessary to investigate a little bit.

The whole project, consisting of eastern, central and western routes, is estimated at 500 billion yuan (US$81 billion), spanning a period of 40 to 50 years.

The reporter was particularly interested in the central section, whose construction began in 2003. Following the completion of Phase I last year, the central route is scheduled to supply water to parched northern regions including Beijing and Tianjin in mid-2014.

The city of Shiyan, Hubei Province, is seriously affected by the water-diversion project. The reporter described Shiyan as “ugly.” It is home to Dongfeng Auto Company, which makes Dongfeng trucks and Fukang automobiles.

Toward the end of the 1960s, the government, following a row with the former Soviet Union, decided to set up a giant automaker in this city nestled among mountains, about 400 kilometers from the city of Wuhan.

As the capacity of the Danjiangkou Reservoir in Shiyan had to be raised significantly so that water could be sourced and diverted to the north, about 471 villages in Shiyan were inundated. As a result, over 200,000 people have been relocated — the largest relocation in China since the mammoth Three Gorges Dam project.

To slake its thirst for land, Shiyan has been expanding its “new city” aggressively. According to a local government report, since 2007, when construction of the west part of the new city started, 1,000 households were relocated, over 100 mountaintops were flattened, and over 5,000 tombs were removed.

Given the racket and the dust kicked up in this land-shifting endeavor, we should not be surprised that local authorities are in dire need of money to curb pollution in five tributaries to the Danjiangkou Reservoir.

The water quality in one of the five rivers is labeled “grade IV,” which means “industrial use only,” and that in the other four is the worse “grade V,” meaning “agricultural use only.”

It is said that half of local sewage water is discharged untreated into these rivers. The water quality in all five rivers is supposed to meet “grade III” by 2015.

The German reporter seemed politely optimistic about the anticipated cleanup.

She came from Stuttgart, home to Mercedes, Porsche and Bosch, and during Germany’s economic development, many German rivers were heavily polluted.

I did not derive much solace from her reassurances, for Germany has cleaned up partly because it has successfully outsourced its most polluting manufacturing capacity to other countries. It’s a moral irony that a place known for luxury brand cars should be allowed to have access to clean air and water.


I thought about the Confucian tenet, “Do not impose on others what you yourselves do not desire.”

This is exactly where the globalized trick of “outsourcing” has gone awry.

When extended, this outsourcing philosophy can also apply to the many water-diversion projects. The logic is that when local resources can no longer sustain local greed, you can always export pollution, or import clean resources.

According to government statistics this May, of the 657 cities in China, about half are in “grave shortage of water.” In addition to the gigantic South-to-North water-diversion projects, there are at least 15 smaller-scale local projects, involving nearly 130 billion yuan in investment.

As Qiu Baoxing wrote recently, when water diversion becomes costlier and goes over longer distances, it causes greater and greater ecological damage to the areas where the water is sourced. Qiu noted that there are generally strict restrictions over long-distance water diversion in developed countries, especially when this involves different river systems.

Qiu is a former deputy minister of Housing and Urban-Rural Development.

It is easy to see why water-diversion projects are being resisted. According to the June 6 Oriental Morning Post, Hangzhou plans to divert 20 percent of the water from Qiandao Lake, but this has been fiercely resisted by Jiande, which is close to the lake.

One should be surprised that Hangzhou, the earthly paradise sitting right next to the Qiantang River, should lack water. Of course Hangzhou does not lack water. Like nearly all prosperous water-rich cities, it is merely thirsty for clean water. According to a statement from the Ministry of Environmental Protection on June 4, the water quality is “extremely poor” not only in Hangzhou Bay but also in the estuary of the Yangtze River, the Minjiang River estuary and the Pearl River estuary. That’s an extremely disturbing comment on the cost of being a global factory, for these areas are all engines of soaring growth.

By allowing those who have soiled their own nest to outsource, we are essentially encouraging a dirty, destructive and irresponsible way of life.


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