China Just Opened the World’s Largest Water Diversion Project

An unprecedented engineering project sends water to China’s parched North

South-North Water Diversion
A 2013 view of a channel in the middle section of China’s South-North Water Diversion project HOW HWEE YOUNG/epa/Corbis

China is divided into North and South. The two parts of the country were created by climate and geography first and enhanced over time by historical political lines. Lu Xun, an essayist and writer in the early part of the 20th century, wrote: "According to my observation, Northerners are sincere and honest; Southerners are skilled and quick-minded. These are their respective virtues. Yet sincerity and honesty lead to stupidity, whereas skillfulness and quick-mindedness lead to duplicity."

Today, people still identify as Northerners or Southerners, but the climate is exerting more of an influence. The more industrial North also has two-thirds of the farmland but only a fifth of China’s fresh water, reports the Economist. In the early 1950s, Mao Zedong apparently observed, "The south has plenty of water, but the north is dry. If we could borrow some, that would be good,” writes Jonathan Kaiman for The Guardian

So China came up with plan to fix the water problems. So far, that plan has cost approximately $79 billion. The South-North Water Diversion will eventually "divert 44.8 billion cubic meters of water annually from China’s humid south to its parched, industrialized north," Kaiman writes. This week, water started flowing through the one large portion: "[The] project’s “middle line” officially began carrying water from the Danjiangkou reservoir in central China’s Hubei province to Beijing – the distance from Corsica to London."

The extensive waterway plan has been met with plenty of criticism. The vice minister of the Ministry of Housing and Rural Development, Qui Baoxing, says that water recycling would be a far more sustainable solution, reports ChinaFile. He wrote, "If we try to solve our water crisis by diverting water, then new ecological problems will emerge. This is not sustainable at all.”

The Economist's reporting agrees:

The transfer will supply about a third of Beijing’s annual demand. A spur of the canal will provide an even greater proportion of Tianjin’s. But these shares will shrink over time. Even if people use less water, population growth, the expansion of cities and industrialization will increase China’s overall demand. By lubricating further water-intensive growth the current project may even end up exacerbating water stress in the north.

International Rivers, a nonprofit based in Berkley, Calif., estimates that 330,000 people were relocated for the expansion of the Danjiangkou reservoir, the start of the middle line.

Perhaps all this explains why China started the first water flowing through the system with little fanfare. At the Guardian, Kaiman reports that the Henan Daily newspaper wrote in a blog post: “Being a peoples’ engineering project, in keeping with a frugal and pragmatic working style, celebratory activities will be kept as simple as possible,” it said. “No officials will take part in the ceremonies.”