The cost of water

china plans to embark on an ambitious project to transport water hundreds of kilometres from the abundant south of the country to the parched north. "We will definitely do this project," said Wang Chunzheng, vice-minister at the state development planning commission. Experts say that the project would be on a grand scale similar to that of the us $24.4 billion Three Gorges hydroelectric dam, and estimated to cost about us $7 billion.

The idea for the project was first mooted by chairperson Mao Zedong who called it "moving southern water north". Although there were many plans earlier to move water by canals and pipelines, the government never publicly endorsed such projects. But what has necessitated the government to go ahead with this project is the declining water table beneath Beijing. The water table in China's capital fell by an average of 2.6 metres last year and by six metres in one industrial suburb. Since the 1960s, the water table beneath Beijing has sunk by 59.5 metres.

Even the level of water in the Yellow river, which was once the cause of devastating annual floods, has fallen in its lower reaches; in 1997 it failed to reach the sea for 226 days of the year. Wang, however, said that there is still no consensus when the project would begin and which of the three possible water transport routes would be most effective.

On the other hand, the project is also generating a great deal of controversy. One of the routes of transporting water might involve taking water from the Mekong river. If this happens, China may have to contend with stiff resistance from Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, all of which rely heavily on the Mekong waters. Another route is one which runs north along the eastern seaboard from the lower reaches of the Yangtze. The third runs either from the upper reaches of the Mekong and Irrawaddy.

Western analysts believe that this kind of desperate measure is a result of the faulty water and environment policies of China. They say the country's policy of promoting intensive grain farming in northeast China, which has abundant water, has aggravated the crisis.

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