China to build ‘national water web’ to ensure water security

China will create a “national water web” to distribute water across several river basins, the Five Year Plan for Water Security revealed on Tuesday.

The diversion projects are framed as a follow up and extension of the vast South–North Water Diversion Project, which already takes water from the Yangtze River basin in the south to the relatively arid Yellow River basin in the north.

The web will connect rivers in the southeast of the country. Additional diversions in central China, from the Yangtze to the Huai, will also be developed. The details of the projects, including how they could impact hydrology, ecology and water stress, are not available in the Five Yera Plan but may emerge later when more assessments are done.

Notably, the plan is muted on the proposed western route of the South–North Water Diversion Project, which envisages taking water from Sichuan tributaries in the upper reaches of the Yangtze to provinces along the Yellow River via a huge system of dams and canals. Due to tremendous risks, construction of the western route has never begun while the less controversial central and eastern routes are already in operation. 

The plan highlights the importance of “grasping the different characteristics of the eastern, central and western routes,” and stipulates that the next five years should be spent “strengthening top-level planning, optimising strategic coordination and conducting research on key questions [concerning the routes]”, without specifying what should happen with the western route. This may reflect continued concern over the soundness of the proposal.

Water saving also features heavily in the plan. China will strengthen the quota-based system for permitting water use, and will base decisions that have major implications for water consumption on scientific assessments of water availability. Authorities are instructed to restrict water-use permits for regions that already show signs of overconsumption and to build up alert systems to monitor water-stress levels.

Read China Dialogue’s 2020 report on the South–North Water Diversion Project.