It would only take a single carelessly abandoned match to destroy the entire wheat crop of Qinyang County, in north China's Henan Province. This spring and summer, Qinyang and other northern areas of the country have been plagued by the worst drought in two decades. Parched lands, withered crops, dried lakes, and thirsty animals are a common sight.
The water shortage and reduced rainfall hamper local development and greatly affect people's life. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the region's agricultural yield this year has so far been cut by 11 million tons, 9.3 percent down on a year-on-year basis from the previous 107.5 million tons. Drought has also prevented farmers from further sowing.
Several large cities including Tianjin and Beijing have imposed water rationing to ease the pressure for daily, commercial and industrial use. Tianjin City closed all car-washing businesses, put public bathrooms under strict management, and stopped the water supply to vegetable fields.
North China has been in the grip of chronic drought since ancient times. China is plagued with unevenly distributed water and land resources: more water and less land in the south and less water and more land in the north. The north accounts for 37 percent of the country's total population, 45 percent of cultivated land, but only 12 percent of the total water resources. Over 80 percent direct water runoff in China takes place in the south, where cultivated land accounts for just 40 percent of the total. Since the 1980s, the Haihe and Yellow river valleys have been stricken by chronic drought. Yet, further south, about 1,000 billion cubic meters of water from the Yangtze empties into the sea each year.
To ease the water shortage, the north and the northwest regions have long pumped water from underground, causing serious environmental problems, with surface subsidence, groundwater levels declining, rivers drying up, soil salinity and alkalization, and seawater flowing into low-lying places.
Ending the water shortage is of great significance to the north, especially as an increasing population and greater economic development will create greater water demand. This year's worsening drought, especially the spring's large-scale sandstorms, has again brought a long-debated south-to-north water-channeling project back to the top of the agenda. This calls water to be piped from the upper, middle, and lower reaches of the flood-prone Yangtze River to the thirsty north.
Rational use and protection of water resources are called for in the north. Yet, experts say the water project is a must to solve the water shortage once and for all because of the unbalanced geological and seasonal distribution of water resources.
As early as 1952, three years after the People's Republic of China was founded, Chairman Mao Zedong proposed channeling water from south to north. Several decades since then, related research, investigations and feasibility studies at various levels have been conducted.
Experts have recommended the project to optimize the water resources of the Yangtze, Huaihe, Yellow, Haihe rivers and other inland waterways. The project will also help the development in arid and semi-arid western regions.
Official sources believe China has both the economic and technological strength to handle the project, which would take eight years to complete, after which about 110 billion cubic meters of water, twice the current volume of the Yellow River, can be piped north each year.
According to the plan, Yangtze water will be channeled through three alternate routes in the west, middle and eastern regions. But experts say certain issues, including the price of the channeled water, should be settled before the project is started.
The west line would connect the Tongtian, Dadu and Yalong rivers, three major tributaries of the Yangtze, to the Yellow River from upper streams in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. The middle line would transfer water from the central section of the Yangtze in Sichuan or Hubei Province to north China via Henan province. In the east, water from the Yangtze would be lifted up through the Grand Canal to the northern parts of Jiangsu, Anhui and Shandong provinces and then to the north of the Yellow River.
Official sources said that the middle and east projects would likely be started first, since China has long been working on these two channels and can cope with the technical challenges. It will alleviate the water crisis directly in Beijing, Tianjin, and other places in the north. In addition the construction of these two lines will help promote the more difficult western channel.
This is the most challenging infrastructure construction project, as well as the world's largest water transfer project. The middle and eastern channels are 2,600 km long and involve an investment of 100 billion Yuan, covering seven provinces and municipalities. Before launching the project, many factors have to be carefully considered, including the technology requirement, environmental impact, and economic and social development coordination of the water supplying and receiving areas.
Experts said that the amount of water transferred would depend on the actual water runoff in the south per year. To guarantee supply, water will be stored during the wet season and released in the dry.
Nearly five decades of research have helped experts gain knowledge and reach certain conclusions about many issues, including the impact on the Yangtze River delta, the influence on aquatic life near the supplying areas and soil alkalization. Research will be further conducted to work out the overall planning and blueprints for the project.
An outline of the overall plan will be submitted by the Ministry of Water Resources to the government this month, providing a basis for its inclusion in the Tenth Five-Year Plan (2001-2005). To facilitate the project, China has set up the South-to-North Water Transfer Planning and Design Bureau.
Yet, a single water project cannot be a panacea for China's water crisis. The Chinese government also needs to perfect its water resource management system to match supply and demand, encourage more efficient irrigation techniques, prevent water wastage and improve the public's awareness of the rational use and protection of water resources.