China pushing water uphill
IPN Opinion article
Financial Express (India)
Floods in China have killed at least 155 people since April and made over a million homeless even though the massive Three Gorges Dam was supposed to prevent such catastrophes. China's latest and even bigger project, to divert water from the south to the north, is not likely to work either: like many countries, China needs more local rights and fewer vainglorious schemes.
China is pressing ahead with a massive US$62 billion South-to-North Water Diversion Project despite high costs, environmental and social threats and early setbacks.
China has regular shortages, depletion of groundwater and high pollution (frequently covered up by officials) from industry, farming and sewage. This year millions suffered acute drought in Southern China. The Ministry of Environmental Protection admits 70% of China's rivers and lakes are polluted. And northern China has almost half the country’s 1.3 billion population but only 15% of its fresh water.
So the new project would transfer billions of cubic metres a year from the Yangtze River by three routes, across hundreds of miles, to the thirsty north. Proposed by Chairman Mao, the project was only launched in 2002 and met immediate opposition.
The western route–-on hold following widespread protests–-would cross five fault lines, including the epicentre of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake which killed over 70,000. It also threatens India's and Bangladesh's dependence on rivers downstream, including the Brahmaputra. Tianjin, a city on the eastern route, has already rejected the potential new supply as too polluted. Enlarging the Danjiangkou Reservoir on the central route will expel 300,000 people. Details are still secret but the seven planned dams are expected to flood and destroy towns, cultural monuments and ecosystems, evicting more people.
The Three Gorges Dam, the most grandiose and expensive scheme to date, cost $37 billion, flooded 13 cities, hundreds of towns and thousands of villages, ejecting 1.3 million people (as officially admitted). Cracks appeared before it was completed in 2006 and now it causes fissures and landslides nearby. The costs and problems of the diversion project are much bigger.
These colossal, high-risk projects cannot fix China’s water problems: it must reconsider its whole approach and decentralise control of water.
A few small improvements over the past decade have allowed some collective management and transfer of water rights between users but, overwhelmingly, water-use remains inefficient because it is ruled by politics--not supply and demand. The North China Plain, one of the driest areas, also produces half China’s wheat, a water-intensive crop. Yet farmers get subsidised water, leaving no incentive for less-water-intensive crops or better irrigation (which leaks nearly 10%).
China should look to Chile, which went from similarly ineffective top-down water management to local and transferable water rights, starting in the mid-'70s. In places and times of scarcity, prices rise and consumption falls. Fears for the poorest were allayed by a means-tested subsidy that encourages rational consumption and has largely resisted abuse.
Over the first decade, water efficiency in agriculture improved by nearly a quarter, with similar improvements in industry, from mining to wood pulp, followed by massive improvements in sewerage and water treatment.
This is relevant not just to China. Many other regions are short of water, while bad water management prevents universal water supply in many poor countries. Decentralisation can improve supply and efficient use, ease tensions between different users and hold polluters accountable locally.
Giant projects are a constant temptation for governments everywhere but most violate common sense, accountability and human rights--often to end in failure. Only the quiet virtues of local rights and responsibilities, in the hands of users, can keep the water flowing.
Caroline Boin is a Project Director and Nathaniel Clark a researcher at the independent economic-development think-tank International Policy Network, London.