Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, October 02, 2014

MegaProjects in China

The Great Wall of China. The Three Gorges Dam. The Grand Canal. And now The Great South-North Water Transfer Project.

The beginnings of the Great Wall go back 2,700 years. The Three Gorges Dam was begun in 1994 and completed in 2012. The Grand Canal, linking the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers, was begun 2,500 years ago and the various sections were linked together during the Sui dynasty. All of these audacious projects stand as monuments to Chinese technology and capacity.

Now comes a new huge project. Is this a sign of powerful state? Is it a sign of mis-analyzed economics? Or just as sensible as the water systems that feed California's Central Valley and Los Angeles?

A canal too far: The world’s biggest water-diversion project will do little to alleviate water scarcity
The new waterway is part of the biggest water-diversion scheme in the world: the second arm of what is known as the South-North Water Diversion Project. This is designed to solve an age-old imbalance. The north of China has only a fifth of the country’s naturally available fresh water but two-thirds of the farmland. The problem has grown in recent decades because of rapid urban growth and heavy pollution of scarce water supplies.

The result is a chronic shortage… In 2009 the government said that nearly half the water in seven main rivers in China was unfit for human consumption. All this has encouraged ever greater use of groundwater. Much of this is now polluted too…

South-North Water Transfer Project
In late October the… new watercourse… will push 13 billion cubic metres of water more than 1,200km from the Danjiangkou dam in the central province of Hubei to the capital, Beijing. The aim is to allow industry and agriculture to keep functioning… The new canal will help avert an imminent crisis. But the gap between water supply and demand will remain large and keep growing…

By increasing supply, the government is failing to confront the real source of the problem: high demand for water and inefficient use of it. Chinese industry uses ten times more water per unit of production than the average in industrialised countries… A big reason for this is that water in China is far too cheap. In May 2014 Beijing introduced a new system that makes tap water more expensive the more people use. But prices are still far from market levels…

[Officials] do not want to scare industries away from cities by charging them more for water. They also do not want to face angry protests by residents. Hence they prefer shifting water around in pipes and canals. Britt Crow-Miller of Portland State University describes the diversion project as “a physical demonstration of political power”…

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