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Sichuan Demands More Say in Major Water Diversion Project
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The South-to-North Water Diversion Project, approved by the central government in 2002, will divert water from China's longest river, the Yangtze, to the northern parts of the country. This major project will involve cutting across several parts of China, including Sichuan Province in the southwest. Construction on western route of the diversion project, scheduled to start in 2010, will cost an estimated 304 billion yuan (US$38.37 billion), and will divert 170 billion cubic meters of water from Yalong and Dadu rivers to relieve severe water shortages in northern areas including Qinghai, Gansu, Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces, Ningxia Hui and Inner Mongolia autonomous regions.

Scholars argue that local people were not very clear about the project. Further, there has been little information about the impact of the project on people's lives and the environment.

The irony of it is, Sichuan has its fair share of water issues, droughts being a fairly common occurrence. The province is recovering from a recent drought that plagued them for about three months this summer, leaving many with insufficient drinking water. Last year, the Sichuan provincial government made plans to divert two to three billion cubic meters of water from Dadu River, one of the most important tributaries of the Yangtze, to Minjiang River that irrigates 10.26 million mu of farmland on the Chengdu Plains.

And now, they have to contend with the south-to-north water diversion project, which remains largely unknown to the majority of the population.

The central government approved the project in 2002, and construction on the eastern and central routes, with a total investment of 200 billion yuan (US$25 billion), have already begun.

Work on the western route, which passes through Sichuan and the southeast of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, is scheduled to start in 2010 and will cost an estimated 304 billion yuan (US$38.37 billion). Water will be diverted from the Tongtian, Yalong and Dadu rivers through a 490-kilometer-long tunnel across Bayankala Mountain. The project will force the relocation of tens of thousands of people, and submerge homes and pasture land.

But how much do the local people actually know about the project? According to the project's opponents, not a lot.

76-year-old Lu Jiaguo, a researcher with the Sichuan Provincial Academy of Social Sciences (SASS), wrote to the State Council twice in 2005 to ask that careful consideration be given to the construction of the western route of the project. Some people believe that his requests might have actually delayed the project. The official release of the project proposal will only be released at the end of this year, postponed from 2005.

The former director of SASS, 83-year-old Lin Ling, asks: Will the western route of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project "save the Yellow River by destroying the Yangtze?

The issue has generated such a large volume of debate that it's been compiled into a book, "Memos of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project Western Route". Three thousand copies were published for its Chengdu launch on August 31.  

Lin and Lu, two of the key promoters of the book, pointed out that it is wholly grassroots. Most of the contributors are members of the Sichuan Senior Citizens Science and Technology Association, and Sichuan Society for Hydroelectric Engineering, and the two associations covered all publication costs.

Unfortunately, unlike in 2005, the book didn't instigate much of a reaction from anyone, official or local resident. Lin said that the only "official response" he could cajole was from a standing committee member of the Sichuan Provincial People's Congress: "Western route? What is that? I know nothing about it."

Lin, himself, first heard about the project in 2004. But it wasn't until March 22, 2005, that he understood what it meant. The Ministry of Water Resources held a seminar on the western route project in Chengdu, and it was then that he was given his introduction.

The book's editors are extremely blunt in their foreword, which include statements including "Sichuan scholars have a lot of complaints about being shown the plan four years after it was approved", "There has been no communication with us nor were our opinions sought for vital decisions. Is this right", "How could such a huge project of such wide-ranging impact and influence be approved without considering the opinions of experts, especially experts from areas surrounding the water source?"

"We need scientific decision-making; we also need to make decisions through a democratic process," Lin added.

Lu said that compared with Three Gorges Project, the western route project need more investment, is more complex, and is of more wide-ranging impact. It therefore deserves more public participation. The State Council should organize different teams to draft special reports on the project that should be submitted to the National People's Congress (NPC) for approval.

Clarifying that neither his nor his colleagues' words were to be taken as expert advice, Lu added: "We are amateur researchers. We do research with no government support and no funding. We are not against the western route project per se. But we think that the time is not ripe for making such a vital decision, more research has to be done."

By comparison, Tan Yingwu, former chief engineer of Yellow River Engineering Consulting Co Ltd, said that the western route project is "irreplaceable and imperative" and "no significant obstacles were found to affect the construction of the project."

Lin Ling raises "nine questions" that he feels need to be addressed, which include geology, ecology and the environment; the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, shrinking glaciers on the plateau; the volume of water to be transferred; relocation and protection of people and cultural relics; influence of the transfer on electricity supplies from west to the east; compensation to residents; and fundraising.

Lin is now a member of the Pre-construction Work Office of Western Route Project affiliated to Sichuan Provincial Bureau for Water Resources and Hydropower, a coordinating office set up by the MWR. But it would seem that more coordination work needs to be done because some staff members from the bureau don't know of this office. Further, it would seem that Lin's repeated requests to the provincial government for more research to be conducted have fallen on deaf ears.

Lu, for his part, tried to propose a bill about the project through the Sichuan Delegation to the NPC session in 2005, but was refused. He was only allowed to make a "suggestion" through a Chengdu NPC deputy.

In 2005, Lin conducted his own field investigation in Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture to hear what the local people and government officials had to say about the project. To his surprise, most of the local people knew nothing about the project, while local government officials only seemed to care about the economics of the situation. As several hydropower stations have been built over the rivers, officials are more concerned about the impact of the diversion on electricity generation. From what Lin could tell, they knew nothing about the potential impact on the environment and people's lives.

An expert close to the project said the Sichuan provincial government was not too involved in the project. "Maybe they think the project is still far away," the expert said. He cited an example. In 2001, a 70-member inspection team was set up to examine the Outline of the Western Route Project Plan. Representatives from the provinces involved were invited. Provinces in the upper reaches of the Yellow River sent directors from the planning commission and water resources bureau, but Sichuan only sent a chief engineer. It didn't give any explanation for this.

However, officials seem to be eager to participate more closely these days. In a report to the investigation team sent by the NPC, Deputy Governor of Sichuan Wang Huaichen detailed the impact to the province and claimed for compensation and special support from the central government.

Lu Jiaguo believes that a former official from the economic and trade commission of the province was a lot more honest about the provincial government's change of heart: the western route project spells economic potential, and Sichuan would like a share of the spoils.

(Source: China Newsweek, translated by Zhang Yunxing for China.org.cn, September 27, 2006)

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