COX Newspapers Washington Bureau

In China, A Water Plan Smacks Of Mao

Cox News Service
Sunday, September 10, 2006

The plan sounds audacious: Move some 53 trillion gallons of water — roughly equivalent to 40 percent of Lake Erie — annually from Tibet to northern China to turn deserts and parched lands into fields and forests.

The ambitious proposal to build hundreds of miles of aqueducts, tunnels and reservoirs, called the Big Western Line, is reminiscent of massive engineering projects carried out with little environmental oversight under Mao Zedong in the 1950s and 60s.

But unlike in the Mao era, the proposal has drawn a chorus of protest from China's scientific community and created a rare rift between the experts and some of the Communist Party's most prominent elder statesman.

The discord has prevented the project from getting beyond the drawing board and it highlights the more prominent role China's scientists have achieved in recent decades.

"Under Mao, scientists were often sidelined, but now the government has realized that it needs technical expertise to solve its problems," said Zhao Yean, a senior member of the government's Yellow River Water Resources Committee.

With one-fifth of the people on the globe but only 8 percent of the world's fresh water, possibly no problem in China is as pressing as its growing water crisis.

As the populations of cities in northern China surge, water tables are dropping rapidly and sections of the Yellow River, China's second-longest waterway, run dry for much of the year.

Much of north-central China is at risk of encroaching deserts. The government estimates that every year a new area roughly the size of Rhode Island is buried under sand.

"With one engineering project we could solve all of northern China's water problems," said Guo Kai, 73, a water engineer and chief proponent of the massive Big Western Line. "Northern China is water starved. We need to help the people who live there."

He has attracted the support of at least 15 senior generals in the People's Liberation Army.

"Many of the generals have lived and traveled in western China so they know how serious the water shortage is there and how difficult life is," said Li Ling, the author of Tibet Water Plan to Save China, a book supporting the Big Western Line.

But a group of prominent scientists has lined up against the plan, warning that it could cause dramatic climate changes and widespread environmental damage.

Unlike in the past, they have knowledgeable potential allies in top government positions.

President Hu Jintao has a post-graduate degree in "water conservancy engineering" from Qinghua University, often called China's MIT, while former president Jiang Zemin earned a degree in electrical engineering from one of Shanghai's top schools.

Many older Communist Party officials, promoted in the 1970s because of their working-class backgrounds, have retired and been replaced by younger, better-educated officials, said Zhao.

Guo and his supporters have good intentions, but because they aren't scientists, "they really don't understand the difficulties of building such a large water transfer project or the damage it would cause the environment," Zhao said.

The Big Western Line calls for water to be diverted from six Chinese rivers, including an upper stretch of the Mekong, the Yalung Zangbo and Nu, all of which flow through South and Southeast Asia.

After being diverted, the water would flow northeast through a series of reservoirs, natural rivers and man-made tunnels. From Qinghai Lake, a major nesting place for migratory birds in China's western Qinghai province, it would be split into man-made channels and existing rivers and moved as far east as Beijing.

One supporter of the project is 88-year-old air force major general Wang Dinglie, one of a handful of living Communist Party members who accompanied Mao on the Long March, the Communist Red Army's 6,000-mile-long trek from southern China to Shanxi province before World War II. He holds a revered spot within the party, said Li.

Such influence has generated enough support that Guo was given 11 meetings with top Beijing officials over the past year, the Southern Weekly newspaper reported.

But if Guo is building political momentum for the plan, scientists are pushing back.

Guo Qiaoyu, a water expert with the Nature Conservancy's Beijing office who is not related to Guo Kai, said that the water transfer would cause the Yellow River to flood while the changed flow and water temperature would lead to a rapid decline in fish and other aquatic species.

"Really, you can't just change an entire environment suddenly without causing massive damage," she said.

Instead of focusing on moving water north, Beijing should work to save water already there by, for example, convincing farmers to install water-saving technologies, said Jiang Liping, a World Bank water resources specialist in Beijing.

"Moving water north is only a temporary solution if Beijing can't control its use," he said. "In the long-term, the only way to solve the problem is to improve water management."

In its possible environmental impacts, the Big Western Line resembles projects carried out under Mao. In 1958, for example, the Communist Party called on "the whole people, including 5-year-old children" to kill sparrows, which Mao blamed for eating grain.

Chinese stood beneath trees banging on pots and pans to scare the birds into flight, and millions eventually dropped dead from exhaustion. Farm cadres realized only later that insects the sparrows had eaten were more destructive than the birds had been.

"In the 1950s and 60s officials thought we could control nature," Zhao said. "Now we understand that people have to live in balance with nature. We can't anticipate what will happen to an environment if we make a sudden change."

Big Western Line supporters, however, argue that the environmental costs of the project would be outweighed by human benefits.

"The academics who oppose the project only know how to read books" while its supporters "love our country and countrymen," said author Li, a 65-year-old Chinese army writer.

Guo Kai, who estimated the project would take 10 years to build, said that opposition from water experts could delay it but not stop it.

"Without the Big Western Line we won't be able to solve our water problems, so we'll have to build it," he said. "It's just a question of when."

Experts remain skeptical.

"Turning deserts into gardens is just Guo Kai's dream," said The Nature Conservancy's Guo. "It's a nice idea, but it really can't be done."