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Thirsty China to divert the mighty Yangtze

Water from the  Yantze River basin in the wetter south will be diverted to the arid north along three significant channels.
Water from the Yantze River basin in the wetter south will be diverted to the arid north along three significant channels.  

BEIJING, China -- China has unveiled plans for the largest water water-diversion in its history and possibly one of the world's most expensive at $60.4 billion.

The project will channel water from the country's longest river, the Yangtze, to three rivers in the north, the Yellow, Huai and Hai, whose basins are running dry.

The ambitious South-to-North Water Transfer Project will move water along three channels linking the wetter flood-prone southern basin to parched northern climes.

As China develops and its cities grow, the thirst for water is unparalleled and officials hope this project will streamline northern agricultural and industrial growth, clean up contaminated water and ease civil unrest.

This is just one of the latest of China's massive public works projects, recent ones including the Three Gorges hydroelectric dam, a proposed 4,000-kilometer natural-gas pipeline and the world's highest railroad from Qinghai to Tibet.

Starts next year

Authorities from the Water Resources Ministry plan to begin construction next year on the controversial and hugely expensive project.

Initial costs will run to $22 billion over the next decade for the bulk of the eastern and central routes of the three-pronged project.

"With five to ten years of constructionů the project will be operational and be able to benefit people," Vice Minister of the Water Resources ministry Zhang Jiyao told Reuters news agency.

Zhang said plans for the project would be submitted for approval to the cabinet by the end of the year.

Environmental experts say the new project could cause widespread corruption, human hardship and environmental damage, and could dry up the Yangtze in 30 years.

They urge China to take simpler steps like raising water prices, curbing rampant well-digging, stopping up leaks and improving water treatment.

Who will pay?

The project approved as part of the latest five-year plan, which has a special focus on development projects in the country's central and west areas will be funded mainly by Beijing.

Central government will pick up the vast cost of the project's main waterways and the cost for connecting canals will be picked up by local governments.

Although how the cost trickles down to the consumer has yet to be seen, paying for water or any increase in water prices in the countryside some say could cause civil unrest.

Officials retort that people from the north will just have to get used to it.

Conceived by Mao

The vast public works project, first conceived by Chairman Mao Zedong 50 years ago, was revived last year after several years of severe droughts exacerbated China's man-made water crisis.

Over-pumping and unchecked industrial development have dried up rivers, wells and lakes and sapped the water table, causing cities to sink, the Yellow and Huai Rivers to suffer chronic pollution and a fall in water volume.

Some 700 million people drink contaminated water and in the countryside and farmers in the past have rioted over precious water supplies.

The potential benefits of the project outweigh the downside environmentalists fear, Zhang told Reuters.

"The total amount of water diverted for the eastern, middle, and western routes only accounts for around four percent of the flow of Yangtze, so the impact is not significant," he reiterated.

China is also playing down the burden facing several hundred thousand people due to be moved for the 1,246 km (780-mile) middle route.

The difficult western route, which must cross high mountains to link the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers in one the poorest parts of China, would come later, Zhang told Reuters.


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