Beijing to invest 300 billion yuan to bring water to the north
Western route raises eyebrows for its cost, at least 300 billion yuan, and technical challenges. Work continues on water diversion on the central and eastern routes.

Beijing (AsiaNews/SCMP) – Beijing plans to spend more than 300 billion yuan to divert water from the world's highest plateau to the country's water-starved north, but to do so it must still overcome important technical challenges.

Li Guoying, director of the Ministry of Water Resources' Yellow River Water Conservancy Committee, said it was essential to proceed with the western route for the South-North Water Diversion Project, which would cut through high mountains in Sichuan and Qinghai, bordering Tibet, and link the headwaters of the Yangtze with the Yellow River.

"When the economic and social development in north-west China reaches a certain level and the potential for water conservation is exhausted, this project will be launched," Mr Li said yesterday. For him, the gap between limited water supplies and ever-growing demand in Beijing and the north has left the authorities with few options.

The south-north diversion project started in 2002 and is expected to channel up to 50 billion cubic metres of water from the Yangtze northwards each year along three routes in western, central and eastern China.

In the west work has yet to begin and is expected to take more than 50 years to complete. It if has not yet started it is because of its many engineering problems, such as how to tunnel through the Qinghai-Tibet plateau and mountains to draw water from the Yalong, Dadu and Jinsha rivers.

Once the western route is completed, a total of 17 billion cubic metres of water would flow each year through an estimated 300 kilometres of tunnels and channels. However, this is way off in the future since the route was not included in the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010). The other two routes are instead clearly listed as priority and have a combined budget of about 200 billion yuan.

The central route, which will divert as much as one-third of the annual flow of the Han River (a major tributary of the Yangtze), should reach Beijing before the 2008 Olympics.

Opposition to the overall project remains strong tough; many fear that it would increase pollution levels and starve the Yangtze of water.

In a 2004 letter to Premier Wen Jiabao, Professor Lu Jiaguo, a researcher at the Academy of Social Sciences in Sichuan, said the scheme threatened the environment and the traditional culture of Tibetan communities in Sichuan and Qinghai and has joined many experts in questioning the wisdom of building such a project in an earthquake zone.

Mr Lu also doubted that the 300 billion yuan price tag would be enough to cover the western route because costs were calculated based on 2000 prices.

In his view, the "project should not be allowed to go ahead as the government has yet to find mature solutions to address those difficulties and concerns".  (PB)