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South-to-north water transfer: “The costs hardly add up”

China’s plan to divert water from its southern regions along thousands of kilometres of canals to the arid north has been dubbed “a dream to be realised” by Chinese state media. S.C. Warren assesses the need for the project and explains his reservations.

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The need for a response to China’s water shortage is not contested. China is one of the most water-poor countries in the world, languishing at number 122 in the world-water league table below other populous nations, including the US and Russia.

Supply in the northern regions is especially tight. Just one quarter of China’s total annual rainfall falls on the barren landscape that stretches from Beijing to Gansu province, and water tables have dropped sharply in recent years as farmers bore further into the earth’s crust to extract water for their crops. A projected 25% growth in the national population over the next 30 years will not make life any easier. Meanwhile, some areas in the south suffer from the opposite problem – an excess of water – as a result of seasonal flooding.

Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, a dust-bath on the fringes of the enormous Loess Plateau, is on the front-line of China’s water struggles and is already classified as water-short by international standards. Migration from the region is the solution, according to provincial governors, who believe that having fewer people will ease the crisis. Even so, supply is predicted to drop by almost half by 2030 as consumption rates increase.

In the long-term, Ningxia is also one of the proposed beneficiaries of the south-to-north transfer, which aims to correct regional supply imbalances through the construction of three canals – eastern, central and western – stretching over 3,000 kilometres to create a basin-to-basin transfer from the southern Yangtze to the northern Yellow River.

Sceptics have questioned the wisdom of the scheme. Work is due to involve the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, engineering work on a colossal scale and fundamental changes to the hydrological and ecological functioning of the two river systems. The price-tag, estimated to reach as much as US$ 59 billion by the project’s completion in 2050, is also gargantuan. But is it money well spent?

Agriculture, which stands to benefit most from the water transfer, is the major problem. Grain and other crops guzzle an enormous 70% share of China’s total water availability, but contribute just 15% in return to China’s GDP earnings. Based on current land-use patterns, therefore, the cost of providing water through any component of the south–north transfer scheme would make its use for irrigation uneconomic, even if grain prices trebled.

Once less tangible costs associated with the transfer schemes are taken into account – the disruption of hydrological and ecological processes, loss of wildlife and landscapes – the lack of economic justification becomes even clearer. Even higher economic returns from industrial and urban users on some routes do not balance the books.

Low levels of efficiency in water use raise yet further question-marks over the need for massive new infrastructure.

Better irrigation systems, for example, could achieve significant reductions in overall use. Efforts to renew creaky infrastructure, especially pipes, could also cut wastage, which could run as high as 50%, according to unofficial estimates.

Investment in waste-water plants that allow water to be recycled provides yet another alternative. Water taken from the River Thames in England, for example, is used at least three times before it enters the sea some 200 km from its source. Despite its high level of re-use, the Thames remains of relatively high environmental quality due to careful recycling.

Better pricing, too, would play its part. In the former Soviet bloc countries of central Europe, domestic water use fell by almost 50% following relatively straight-forward price increases. Despite a new water law in 2002 that commits the government to price reform, water in China remains hugely under-priced, meaning that there is no incentive to be more sparing.

Whereas the transfer scheme provides up to 44.8 billion m3 of additional water to the Yellow River each year, management fixes (with the necessary political will) and gradual restructuring of the Chinese economy could more than double this amount.



Key recommendations of Dr. Warren’s report:

1. Reduce leakage from urban distribution systems;
2. Improve the collection and treatment of waste water so that it can be re-used downstream;
3. Discourage irrigated agriculture in arid regions;Improve irrigation methods and practice;
4. Improve irrigation methods and practice;
5. Encourage grain exports from regions of the country where crops are at least partly rain fed


The above extract was adapted from a WWF-commissioned report, “The proposed South–North Water Transfer Scheme in China: Need, Justification and Cost”, which was written in 2001. WWF China wishes to make it clear that the views expressed are only those of the author, Dr. S.C. Warren.

Homepage photo by Sam Haldane

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匿名 | Anonymous



Is it possible to republish the articles from your website?

I'm from a BBS environment forum. The articles here are really of high quality. I hope I can republish some of them in my own forum.

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匿名 | Anonymous



Great article, shame about your forums

Finally! A well-written, well-informed article. Shame the comments are so contrived.

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匿名 | Anonymous


"中外对话"上发表的文章适用创作共用授权许可制度的条款。也就是说,如果一个非商业性网站将文章全文复制、不进行任何改动,并且告知和作者与"中外对话"网站,那么该网站就可以转载这篇文章。 欲想了解更多,请看“常见问题解答”网页。-山姆

Re: republishing

chinadialogue is published under a creative commons license. This means that as long as your website is a non-commercial enterprise and you are not altering the original article, you can publish it, provided you attribute the piece to its author and provide a credit and link to chinadialogue. More terms and conditions on the FAQ page. Sam - chinadialogue

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匿名 | Anonymous



Re: forums

For whom made the 2nd comments, I do not think it is a shame about the forums. Enlarging the influence of any great articles is an important way for reasonable environmental protection, especially for the arguing problems. I should say thank you to Sam and your co-workers, for your kindness and efforts for the environment in China.

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匿名 | Anonymous




This is the first time I've read your website. Well-done! Best wishes and keep up the good work!

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匿名 | Anonymous



Water conservation

Water conservation ought to be more effective and efficient than the South-to-North Water Transfer. There is an old saying: Heaven helps those who help themselves. It would be better to save water ourselves rather than wait for water transferred from a long way away. It’s a pity the government didn’t start promoting the “Nationwide Efforts to Build a Resources-saving Society” earlier. Isn’t it a bit too late to change? I hope it’s not too late.

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匿名 | Anonymous


我第一次听说南水北调工程时,首先想到的就是这样是否会破坏长江流域的水文系统。这项工程将向黄河流域提供水源以增加黄河年流量!在英特网上获得的数据表明,这项工程仅将调走长江年水流量的5%至7%。这些数据是令人惊异的,这也是长江水流的底线。但是事实上黄河年水流量成倍增加后,黄河流域的生产和气候都可能会发生变化,最重要的是防止了土壤沙漠化。工程的实施也不会影响到长江流域的水文和生态系统。这些基本的问题都获得满意解决后,这项工程就可以算得上是一个伟大的奇迹了。在搜寻到足够的信息后,我觉得这项工程在规模和程度上都的确是一项浩大的工程。Kelvin Mok Edmonton 于加拿大

N-S Water Diversification Project

When I first learned of the South-North water diversification scheme the immediate concern was would this draw off so much water that it would damage the hydrology of the Yangtze drainage area? The claim is that this diversification will bring more water to the Huanghe than the Huangho's annual flow! A search on the Internet gave the figure I was looking for, that the diversification will draw only 5 to 7 percent of the annual flow of the Yangtze. These figures are amazing and underscore the size of the Yangtze. But far more impressive is the fact that doubling the annual flow of the Huangho will very likely restore the productivity and climate of the Huanghe lands and, more important, prevent desertification. The project will do this without affecting the hydrology and ecology of the Yangtze. With this fundamental concern answered everything else falls in place as a truly miracle project. Do a search of the many sources of information on the Internet. It is indeed fascinating and awesome in scope and in its consequences

Kelvin Mok
Edmonton, Canada

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



contrived comments

What's the matter with the person who posted comment number 2? I think these forums are great because you can really talk to Chinese people. I don't speak Chinese and this is the only way I can say what I think and hear what they think. What's contrived about that? Maybe he just doesn't want to listen to anybody else!

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匿名 | Anonymous




Lecture related to South-North water transfer

Haha,this is a bilingual website, that's great.There will be a lecture at Peking University related to the South-North water transfer project. Feel free to attend and discuss. -Adong

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匿名 | Anonymous