The central government has vowed to make "good and considerate arrangements" for the nearly 400,000 people giving up their ancestral homes for a multibillion-dollar project to transfer water from the water-rich south to the parched north.
Zhang Jiyao, director of the South-North Water Diversion Project Construction Committee under the State Council, made the promise at a meeting on land requisition and resident relocation held in Beijing Tuesday morning.
On the same day, the central government issued a provisional regulation on land requisition, compensation and resettlement for the project. The regulation went into effect immediately.
Zhang said the project would involve more than 100 counties in seven provinces and municipalities and require the relocation of 300,000 to 400,000 people.
It will be China's second largest resettlement scheme after the Three Gorges Project, which entails the relocation of 1.1 million people.
Zhang said resettlement should be given top priority for the entire project.
"We must ensure that good arrangements are made for the lives and work of the resettled people, and that the living standards of those people will not go down because of resettlement," said Zhang.
Zhang also vowed to keep the project clean of the embezzlement and corruption scandals that have plagued the resettlement process of the Three Gorges Project. In 2000, auditors discovered local officials had used 470 million yuan (US$57 million) from the relocation budget to build hotels, run companies, buy cars or pay salaries.
The late Chairman Mao Zedong first conceived of the South-North Water Diversion Project in 1952. After debates that lasted nearly half a century, the State Council sanctioned the ambitious project in December 2002.
By 2050, it will divert 44.8 billion cubic meters of water annually from the Yangtze, China's longest river, through eastern, middle and western routes to relieve water shortages in north China.
The project, with an estimated total cost of 500 billion yuan (US$60.24 billion), has aroused global concern about land use, regional environmental damage and impact on agriculture along the planned routes.
Severe pollution in the waterways is another concern. Despite a growing awareness of the dire costs to the environment of China's industrial boom, heavy polluters continue to foul water and air owing to poor enforcement of environmental laws and regulations at the local level.
"Water quality on the eastern route, threatened by many chronic sources of contamination, is among the top concerns of the project," said one expert involved in the project.
The Ministry of Water Resources reported earlier this year that less than half of the nation's surface water is potable as a result of pollution, and 35 percent of its ground water has been rendered undrinkable.
At a forum on March 31, Ma Jianhua, chief engineer of the Yangtze River Water Resources Commission, warned that excessive exploitation had already caused pathological changes along sections of the river and that conditions are worsening.
The river is home to critically endangered wildlife, including the Yangtze River Dolphin, or Baiji, the world's most endangered cetacean and one of the 12 most endangered species in the world.
About 24 billion tons of effluent is pumped into the Yangtze annually. Lakes and wetlands along its length have receded owing to rapid urbanization and the reclamation of marshlands, while schistosomiasis, or snail fever, has reached epidemic proportions in many areas.
Supporters, however, insist that the project is the only solution to the worsening water crisis in the country, where per capita fresh water possession is barely a quarter of the world average.
Unlike other water resource management programs in China, they say, the project balances the complicated interests of varied water stakeholders and is committed to "finding harmony between different interest groups as well as between nature and mankind."
Construction of the project's 1,150-kilometer eastern route began in December 2002 and is expected to start supplying water to Shandong Province by 2007. Work on the 1,246-kilometer central route started in December 2003 and should be sending water to Hebei, Henan, Beijing and Tianjin by 2010. Construction of the western route is scheduled to begin in 2010.
(Xinhua News Agency, China.org.cn April 6, 2005)