INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
China's fascination with water not always healthy
, April 25, 2015
China is a very big country of great contrasts. Even its size is debatable. Most people would agree China is somewhat larger than Australia, but with a population of 1.3 billion compared with Australia’s 23 million. As for water, some areas are drought prone, while others face regular flooding.
China’s South-to-North Water
China has two major rivers, plus many more that are substantial enough to warrant attention. The two major rivers, known to anyone who has the least knowledge of China, are the Yellow River and the Yangtze. The Yellow River is in northern China. The name derives from the yellow glacial loess soil that gives the river its yellow colour. The Yellow River, or the Huang He in Mandarin Chinese, is indeed yellow. The river is also known as “China’s sorrow” due to its propensity for causing devastating floods. But it hasn’t been causing many floods recently. Often it doesn’t even reach the ocean these days.
The Yellow River was the birthplace of Chinese civilisation. Evidence has been found of human habitation going back more than a million years. The ancient city of Luoyang was the capital of several dynasties. The loess soil is fertile and easy to work, making it possible to generate a surplus, from which sprang government and civilisation.
The Yangtze is regarded as the border between northern and southern China. Before the British settled it, and turned it into the gateway to the Yangtze hinterland, Shanghai was little more than a fishing village. The name for the Yangtze in Chinese is Chang Jiang. The Chinese are a very literal people. Chang Jiang simply means “the long river”.
Unlike the water-starved Yellow River, the Yangtze’s problem is not water scarcity, but too much water. It regularly threatens to flood major cities — such as Wuhan — which sit astride a river junction. Flood control was one of the justifications for constructing the controversial Three Gorges Dam.
China has a long history of ambitious projects to tame and control water. Three million men dug the Grand Canal from Hangzhou in the south, all the way to Beijing. All up, it runs over 1,750 kilometres, all dug by hand. Half the workers died of disease or exhaustion. The Grand Canal flows uphill by means of the pound lock, which the Chinese invented.
The canal was intended to allow communication between north and south, and also to allow for shipping of bulk cargoes such as grain. Indeed, it is still used for this purpose. Unfortunately, the passenger service between Hangzhou and Suzhou to Beijing ceased about half a millennium ago, but I took an overnight boat from Hangzhou to Suzhou. One night expect that a canal would be tranquil, but on the Grand Canal the bulk cargo boats are always moving and they have very noisy engines, making sleeping difficult.
This huge construction project may have claimed a million lives, but it is the longest man-made river ever dug, and no machinery was used. China has, from time immemorial, spent vast reserves of labour and treasure on enormous projects, ranging from the terra cotta warriors to China’s latest feat, the South-to-North Water Diversion Project. This project aims to convey the waters of the water-rich Yangtze to the water-poor Yellow River. Three channels will eventually carry billions of gallons of water from south to north. This will be history’s largest-ever water engineering project. Nothing like this has been attempted anywhere in the world. The California Aqueduct, which carries water from the snow-clad mountains of Northern California to the fertile Central Valley and parched Southern California, moves less than a third of what will be conveyed by the main channel.
China’s gigantic water experiment will cost an estimated $80 billion. But it is costing far more than money. Bringing water to Beijing and other water-poor northern cities means that more than 330,000 villagers will be relocated. Many villagers displaced by this huge project say that they have lost farmland and that corrupt low-level officials have skimmed off the promised compensation. Many people are simply displaced and will become internal refugees.
The inspiration for this project was the founder of the Communist regime, Chairman Mao Zedong. He was quoted as saying in 1952: “Southern water is plentiful, northern water is scarce. If at all possible, borrowing some water would be good.” The central channel, delivering water to Beijing, is said to be an impressive feat of engineering. But specialists in water issues say the economics do not make sense. It would be entirely within the Chinese psyche to undertake a project like this, at least in part, to prove to the world that China can plan and complete a huge exercise in engineering which no other nation would dare attempt.
China is building hundreds of dams in the south of the country for hydroelectric power and flood control. China’s scheme to domesticate its wild rivers and bring water to its parched interior has a long way to go.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer, who has spent several years in China and visited most of the country’s provinces and major cities.