China set to start massive water project next year

Updated: Wed, Nov 14 5:40 AM EST

BEIJING, Nov 14 (Reuters) - China plans to begin construction next year on a controversial and hugely expensive project to move water from the flood-prone Yangtze river to parched cities and farmland of the north, a senior official said on Wednesday.

"The project has been prepared well for the commencement of construction of the project in 2002 based on our current progress," said Vice Minister of the Water Resources ministry Zhang Jiyao.

He told a news conference China would spend some 180 billion yuan ($22 billion) over the next decade to build the bulk of the eastern and central routes of the three-pronged project.

"With five to ten years of construction, the eastern and central routes of the project will be operational and be able to benefit people," Zhang said, adding plans for the project would be submitted for approval to the cabinet by the end of the year.

Environmental experts, both Chinese and foreign, say the new project could cause widespread corruption, human hardship and environmental damage, and could dry up the Yangtze in 30 years.

They urge China to take simpler steps like raising water prices, curbing rampant well-digging, stopping up leaks and improving water treatment.

Officials insist the project will offset China's ecological imbalance, streamline agricultural and industrial growth, clean up contaminated drinking water and ease civil unrest.

"In the past, due to water shortages, different sectors and areas had quarrels and conflicts over water," said Zhang Guoliang, director of project's planning and design bureau.

"By diverting water to the northern part of China, we can promote stability and union of the people."

SHORTCOMINGS DOWNPLAYED

The mammoth project, first conceived by Chairman Mao Zedong 50 years ago, was revived in 2000 after several years of severe droughts exacerbated China's man-made water crisis.

Over-pumping and unchecked industrial development have dried up rivers, wells and lakes and sapped the water table, causing cities to sink.

Of China's 668 cities, 400 are short of water. Some 700 million people drink contaminated water and in the countryside, farmers have rioted over precious water supplies.

The potential benefits of the project outweigh the downside environmentalists fear, Zhang said.

"The total amount of water diverted for the eastern, middle, and western routes only accounts for around four percent of the flow of Yangtze, so the impact is not significant," he said.

Less than one percent of the Yangtze's water would be diverted for the 1,150 km (720-mile) eastern route, which piggybacks on the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) Grand Canal from the southeastern city of Hangzhou to Beijing, he added.

Zhang played down the burden facing several hundred thousand people due to be moved for the 1,246 km (780-mile) middle route, which would channel water from the Danjiangkou reservoir in Hubei province northwards through Hebei and Henan provinces.

The project would raise the height of the reservoir and force 250,000 people in Hubei out of their homes.

But local officials are well-prepared, according to Zhang, based on their experience trying to relocate more than a million people for the $25 billion Three Gorges Dam.

The difficult western route, which must cross high mountains to link the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers in one the poorest parts of China, would come later, said Zhang.

Beijing would pick up the huge cost of the project's main waterways and local governments would pay for connecting canals and will borrow 20 to 30 percent of the total investment.

To cover costs and encourage conservation, northern Chinese will also pay more for their long-distance water, said Zhang. He said the water supplied by the project would be subsidised, but that people needed to get used to paying for water.

"We have to include that part in our concept of life."

($1-8.276 Yuan)