Mov­ing heaven and Earth to quench Bei­jing’s thirst

Los Angeles Times - - The World - bar­bara.demick@la­times.com

ever done suc­cess­fully.”

China is plagued by ex­treme weather. Vast river deltas in the south are in­un­dated each year by deadly flood­ing, while the steppes of the north are swept by sand­storms. To rem­edy this, the engi­neers are cre­at­ing a vast hy­dra-like net­work of canals, tun­nels and aque­ducts that will ex­tend thou­sands of miles across the coun­try.

In com­plex­ity, it is some­thing of a Rube Gold­berg ma­chine. The mid­dle route — there are three in all — would siphon wa­ter from a trib­u­tary of the Yangtze River 570 miles south­west of Bei­jing.

The wa­ter is then fun­neled through a canal that trans­verses three prov­inces and passes un­der­neath the Yel­low River.

“It is a lit­tle like build­ing the tun­nel un­der the English Chan­nel to con­nect France and England, ex­cept we’re mov­ing wa­ter, not ve­hi­cles,” said Yang Sheya, 38, an en­gi­neer­ing su­per­vi­sor work­ing on the un­der­ground aqueduct along the banks of the Yel­low River, where it passes just north of He­nan’s pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal, Zhengzhou.

Here, the Chi­nese hy­dro­engi­neers have scooped out a 1,000-foot-wide canal from the dun-col­ored land. It plunges 180 feet un­der­ground to pass be­neath the Yel­low River. (The Yel­low it­self is too pol­luted to sup­ply drink­ing wa­ter.)

From a foot­bridge at the spot where the canal be­gins its de­scent, there is a man­made abyss that looks like the Grand Canyon.

Ev­ery­thing is mas­sive, from the moun­tains of ex­ca­vated dirt to the huge river­side drills that will be used to in­stall un­der­ground pipes about 25 feet in di­am­e­ter.

The Chi­nese have stud­ied wa­ter works from an­cient China to Is­rael, up­dated with the lat­est tech­nol­ogy, to de­sign a sys­tem that uses no pumps, re­ly­ing only on grav­ity to move the wa­ter from the higher el­e­va­tions of the south to Bei­jing. Aspur will also feed the port city of Tian­jin to the east.

The out­sized scale of the project has left many Chi­nese ac­tivists sput­ter­ing with in­dig­na­tion.

They point out the af­front to river ecosys­tems and fish and bird life, the dam­age to the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites in what is widely con­sid­ered the cra­dle of Chi­nese civ­i­liza­tion, and the forced re­lo­ca­tion of hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple.

And, most of all, the un­der­ly­ing ar­ro­gance of an un­der­tak­ing that in essence re­ar­ranges the na­tion’s great rivers.

“They are rob­bing the wa­ter of the rest of China to sup­ply Bei­jing, and it prob­a­bly won’t work any­way,” said Dai Qing, a pro-democ­racy ac­tivist who was im­pris­oned be­fore the Tianan­men Square protests in 1989 and who now fo­cuses on wa­ter is­sues.

Dai said there wasn’t enough clean wa­ter in south­ern China to sup­ply the north and that what­ever wa­ter does reach Bei­jing might be too pol­luted to be us­able.

In fact, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has ac­knowl­edged that the wa­ter from an east­ern spur of the di­ver­sion project, which fol­lows the route of the 1,400-year-old Grand Canal wa­ter­way, is so toxic that it is un­clear whether it can be used even for agri­cul­ture.

Bei­jing, Dai said, should never have been de­vel­oped as a ma­jor eco­nomic and in­dus­trial hub.

“We’ve been say­ing this for years: Bei­jing was just the po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural cap­i­tal of China, and if the pop­u­la­tion were kept un­der 6 mil­lion, we wouldn’t have this prob­lem,” she said. “But now there are too many vested po­lit­i­cal and real es­tate in­ter­ests.”

Yet with Bei­jing’s pop­u­la­tion top­ping 17 mil­lion and pro­jected to dou­ble in the next 40 years, there’s no turn­ing back.

Po­lit­i­cally speak­ing, the project is sacro­sanct, its ge­n­e­sis tied to an off­hand re­mark Mao re­port­edly made in 1952: “There’s a lot of wa­ter in the south, but not much in the north. If we could bor­row some, then ev­ery­thing would be OK.”

The Com­mu­nist Party has staked enor­mous pres­tige on the suc­cess of the project, which is sup­posed be a show­piece for Pres­i­dent Hu Jin­tao’s the­o­ries of “sci­en­tific de­vel­op­ment.” Hu is a hy­draulic engi­neer by train­ing who be­gan his ca­reer at Si­no­hy­dro, the state-owned dam builder re­spon­si­ble for much of the con­struc­tion.

“The abil­ity to con­trol wa­ter in China has al­ways been seen as one of the bench­marks of a leader who is able to man­age the coun­try. It goes back to the idea that the em­peror is the go­b­e­tween to pro­tect the peo­ple from the heav­ens,” said Jonathan Watts, au­thor of a new book, “When a Bil­lion Chi­nese Jump,” about China’s en­vi­ron­ment. “The fact that they are still do­ing it shows their des­per­a­tion.”

There are three ma­jor com­po­nents to the project: The 885-mile east­ern line from Hangzhou to Bei­jing, which mostly fol­lows the route of the Grand Canal and is hoped to be ready by 2013. The mid­dle line, which is sup­posed to open in 2014, runs 766 miles, although it might be ex­tended.

The west­ern sec­tion, which is still in the plan­ning stages, would fun­nel wa­ter from the Ti­betan plateau. But with se­ri­ous cost over­runs and de­lays on the east­ern and mid­dle routes, there are doubts about whether the third line will be built at all.

The mega-project has also been com­pli­cated by the mas­sive re­lo­ca­tions of pop­u­la­tions that stand in the way of the wa­ter.

“In the old days, peo­ple were will­ing to sac­ri­fice their homes for Chair­man Mao. But nowa­days, their at­ti­tude is: ‘If you don’t give me money, I won’t go,’ ” Dai said.

To get enough wa­ter, the engi­neers have raised the height of the Dan­jiangkou dam in Hubei prov­ince, where the mid­dle line orig­i­nates, forc­ing 330,000 peo­ple from their homes, the most re­cent gen­er­a­tion of peo­ple in China known as “dam refugees.”

Hop­ing to avoid the type of pub­lic protests that dogged the Three Gorges project, Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties have raised com­pen­sa­tion lev­els and built en­tire new vil­lages, com­plete with schools, clin­ics, gen­eral stores and com­mu­nity cen­ters.

One such model vil­lage, Guang­gou (the name was trans­planted from the orig­i­nal com­mu­nity 240 miles away), looks like a cross be­tween a Cal­i­for­nia hous­ing de­vel­op­ment and a prison, with rows of two-story re­droofed town­houses painted pale yel­low, all sur­rounded by a tall iron fence.

The 1,600 peo­ple re­lo­cated in Au­gust are un­der­go­ing train­ing on how to farm their new land, which is drier than their old fields, and are even be­ing taught to change their diet from noo­dles to rice, which is more pop­u­lar in this part of He­nan prov­ince.

“We have given up ev­ery­thing for the greater good of the coun­try, but the party has been good to us too,” said Yao Zil­iang, 74, sit­ting on the curb in front of the com­mu­nity cen­ter with many of the other old men. He said he was con­fi­dent that the wa­ter di­ver­sion project would be a suc­cess.

“Of course it will bring wa­ter to Bei­jing,” he said. “The party would not lie to us.”

Kevin Zhao

MAK­ING WAY: Chil­dren play while vil­lagers gather their be­long­ings as they pre­pare to re­lo­cate for a piece of the project be­ing built in Hubei prov­ince.

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