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)
Christoph Behrens

JINAN â€" 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.

The starting point of the South-North-Water-Transfer-Project in China â€" Photo: Nsbdgc

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.

The map of the South-North Water Transfer Project China â€" Photo: Asia Pacific Memo

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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La Sagrada Familia Delayed Again — Blame COVID-19 This Time

Hopes were dashed by local officials to see the completion of the iconic Barcelona church in 2026, in time for the 100th anniversary of the death of its renowned architect Antoni Guadí.

Work on La Sagrada Familia has been delayed because of the pandemic

By most accounts, it's currently the longest-running construction project in the world. And now, the completion of work on the iconic Barcelona church La Sagrada Familia, which began all the way back in 1882, is going to take even longer.

Barcelona-based daily El Periodico daily reports that work on the church, which began as the vision of master architect Antoni Gaudí, was slated to be completed in 2026. But a press conference Tuesday, Sep. 21 confirmed that the deadline won't be met, in part because of delays related to COVID-19. Officials also provided new details about the impending completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin).

El Periódico - 09/22/2021

El Periodico daily reports on the latest delay from what may be the longest-running construction project in the world.

One tower after the other… Slowly but surely, La Sagrada Familia has been growing bigger and higher before Barcelonians and visitors' eager eyes for nearly 140 years. However, all will have to be a bit more patient before they see the famous architectural project finally completed. During Tuesday's press conference, general director of the Construction Board of the Sagrada Familia, Xavier Martínez, and the architect director, Jordi Faulí, had some good and bad news to share.

As feared, La Sagrada Familia's completion date has been delayed. Because of the pandemic, the halt put on the works in early March when Spain went into a national lockdown. So the hopes are dashed of the 2026 inauguration in what would have been the 100th anniversary of Gaudi's death.

Although he excluded new predictions of completion until post-COVID normalcy is restored - no earlier than 2024 -, Martínez says: "Finishing in 2030, rather than being a realistic forecast, would be an illusion, starting the construction process will not be easy," reports La Vanguardia.

But what's a few more years when you already have waited 139, after all? However delayed, the construction will reach another milestone very soon with the completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin), the first tower of the temple to be completed in 44 years and the second tallest spire of the complex. It will be crowned by a 12-pointed star which will be illuminated on December 8, Immaculate Conception Day.

Next would be the completion of the Evangelist Lucas tower and eventually, the tower of Jesus Christ, the most prominent of the Sagrada Familia, reaching 172.5 meters thanks to an illuminated 13.5 meters wide "great cross." It will be made of glass and porcelain stoneware to reflect daylight and will be illuminated at night and project rays of light.

La Sagrada Familia through the years

La Sagrada Familia, 1889 - wikipedia

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