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China 2.0

Mao's Aqueduct: Biggest Water Project Ever Rises In China

One of Mao's most grandiose ideas — an aqueduct stretching 3,500 kilometers — is becoming reality decades after his death. The project promises relief for China's thirsty north, but has already displaced thousands of people in its path

The Yellow River (China)
The Yellow River (China)
Christoph Behrens

JINAN — The Yellow River is nothing but a brown-grey mass of moving water, bordered by banks of rubbish, and is one of the most polluted rivers in China. It's a far cry from its former beauty.

The Chinese once called it "Mother River" and the "Cradle of Chinese Civilization." The Yellow River, or Huang He, crosses the entirety of the country, 5,464 kilometers long, from its springs in the highlands of Qinghai in the West to its delta at Jinan, on the Pacific coast. It provides water for nearly 150 million people and 15% of the agricultural fields of China.

"Whoever controls the Yellow River, controls China," is an expression coined by the legendary ruler Yu The Great who lived 2,200 years B.C.

But today it is the rubbish that controls the river with approximately 4 million tons of sewage per year pumped into its waters. The flow that reaches the delta cannot even be used for industrial purposes anymore, never mind as drinking water.

The river even dries out completely at times before ever having reached the Pacific, which makes the water in China's north not only dirty but also a scarce commodity. China is thus forced to utilize more and more groundwater, but even that is becoming a problem as many springs, as in Jinan, are drying out during the summer months due to this practice.

Ma Jun, who founded the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), a Chinese environmental organization, says both pollution and short supplies put millions at risk. "The combination of these factors makes this quite a serious situation," says Ma.

He warned of an impending water crisis more than 15 years ago, saying the risk is even worse than the much-cited air pollution, which costs more than 1.2 million Chinese people their lives every year.

The Chinese Ministry for the Environment already rates 60% of Chinese groundwater as "quite bad" or "extremely bad," not to be touched by humans.

But a gigantic new infrastructure project, first designed by Chairman Mao himself, is now supposed to solve this problem. Construction workers have driven concrete blocks deep into the earth at Jinan to form an underground canal, only a few kilometers south of the "Yellow River Park." These form part of the arm of the "South-North-Water-Transfer-Project," a network of pipelines, tunnels and aqueducts that will run across thousands of kilometers in China, partly at ground level, partly underground or a few meters above the ground.

They have been building it for 12 years and three routes are envisaged to transport the water: a western, a middle and eastern passage. The eastern route, which runs from Shanghai to the water poor region of Shandong and Beijing, is more than 1,500 kilometers long, approximately the distance between Denmark and Italy.

Dry capital

Even the middle route, which taps into the water of the Yangtze River in the Province of Hubei, transports water all the way to Beijing. Together with the western route, which is not yet under construction, it will move approximately 44.8 billion cubic meters of water per year, according to the State News Agency Xinhua.

"That is like pumping half of the waters of the Nile every year from Cairo to Northern Syria," says U.S. geographer Britt Crow-Miller, who has been observing the construction of the aqueduct for several years. "It is the largest water management project in the history of mankind."

What looks like megalomania is supposed to solve the difficulty of the very uneven distribution of water across China. The North is as dry as a bone, and the 3.6 billion cubic meters of water used annually by Beijing's 23 million inhabitants is already 50% more (at least) than what the rivers and groundwater can supply. China's capital is one of the world's driest, and getting dryer. The charcoal and steel industries are tapping into the North's water supply. The South on the other hand is wet, rich in rain and often threatened by flooding.

"It would therefore be good to borrow some of their water," said Mao Zedong in the early 1950s. But it was only at the beginning of the last decade, when Beijing was awarded the rights to host the Summer Olympics, that construction of the aqueduct began.

So long after his death, Mao's dream lives on in the unbelievable dimensions of the South-North-Water-Transfer-Project. The pipeline construction alone has cost approximately 70 million euros, and more than 300,000 people had to be transplanted from their homes, as they were literally in the way of the gigantic project. The project spans more than 3,500 kilometers and either flows over or underneath a dozen rivers in its progress. Engineers designed a 7.2-km-long tunnel to bypass the Yellow River, and a 12-km-long arch spanning a river in the Henan Province, which set a new world record for overground aqueducts.

But the water is flowing already and the State News Agency has declared a technical triumph to have taken place. The aqueduct is supposed to have "averted a drought in Pingdishan," praised News Agency Xinhua, and photographs show cheering farmers in the North of the country.

Conquer nature

But what they do not depict are the thousands of people who had to leave their homes and who only receive 100 euros a year in compensation. Other serious problems have also arisen. The majority of the water is used to keep the groundwater level at Beijing even. And while a lot of the water actually evaporates at the surface, some of the polluted groundwater rises up and mixes with the aqueduct waters.

"Water pollution is the primary problem, followed by the lack of water," says Xianfang Song, hydrologist at the Chinese Academy of the Sciences. He explains that the "right way" to deal with this would be to cleanse and reuse water and force the industries to cleanse their sewage waters. "We really ought to do that to ensure sustainability," Xianfang says. But China has decided to pour its resources into "the big project" instead.

This project highlights the government's strength as well as weaknesses, according to environmental researcher Ran Ran of Renmin University in Beijing. "There are very strict environmental laws in place," says Ran. "But the civil servants in the countryside are not being given any incentives to uphold these."

Ran, a political scientist, speaks of a "perverted structure of incentives" that creates a chasm between the law and reality. So only those civil servants who increase turnover in industry and increase fiscal revenue get promoted. "I was not able to find a single case of punishment due to non-compliance with environmental standards," says Ran.

Ran says China suffers from an obsolete picture of nature and the environment. Many of the Communist Party-run schools are still under the influence of Mao, who declared that nature was an enemy that had to be beaten.

Ren Ding Sheng Tian, which means "man must conquer nature," was one of Mao's slogans, and the party declared that it was going to radically alter nature. "Many still think that way," says Ran.

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