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Meet the man behind the world's largest water diversion project

China.org.cnUpdated: September 26, 2019

The South-to-North Water Diversion Project is the world's largest water diversion project, and the central route – one of the three major water diversion routes – is a water canal of over 1,000 kilometers long. The route has so far channeled over 20 billion cubic meters of water from the Danjiangkou reservoir in the country's south to its parched north.

The mega project is unprecedented in the volume of water it channels, the distance the water travels, and the population size it benefits – 438 million residents scattered across 15% of China's territory.

Li Shuncai, deputy chief engineer of the central route of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project, reads a document in his office in Beijing on Sept. 23, 2019. [Photo by Sun Tao/China.org.cn]

Li Shuncai joined the engineering team in 2004, and is now the deputy chief engineer of the central section of the water diversion project.

He took part in China's universal college entrance examination in 1980, and became one of the first college students during China's reform and opening-up period. But things were not going well as he expected.

"Water resources and hydropower engineering was not the first major I chose to study," Li said, recalling that he was not quite overjoyed upon receiving the college admission letter. "At that time, we all had the dream to be a scientist or an engineer, but not a worker on the water project. I knew nothing about water, I didn't even know how to swim."

However, Li's parents thought differently. "My parents believed this was a precious opportunity, since the college admission rate was as low as 5% in the 1980s," the engineer said. "They always told us to live with aspiration, and never miss any chance to make contributions to the country. Those words are still fresh in my mind."

After graduating from the Kunming University of Science and Technology, Li did not choose to work in a small hydropower station and hence live a simple life, but devoted himself in many national key water projects, including the Lubuge Hydropower Station, the Gezhouba Dam, the Three Gorges Dam, and the central route of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project. Throughout the past four decades, he witnessed the development and innovations in China's water project construction technologies.

"The young people should take part in national key and large projects, where they can gather more experience and better grow up," Li said. "The country needs us in the front lines of construction, and that's where we truly realize our value."

Li Shuncai instructs the workers at the construction site of the central route of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project in 2008. [Photo courtesy of Construction and Administration Bureau of the Central Route of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project]

The construction of the central route of the water diversion projects was extremely complicated. It involved the coordination and management of construction in four separate areas, including Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei province, and Henan province, each presenting unique geological and climatic challenges. The construction must also mitigate risks of flood, strong wind, and other environmental hazards.

From the initial launch of the project, Li devoted himself to every detail of the construction process, from formulating the operational regulations and standards to overseeing production safety as well as emergency management.

Beyond the project itself, Li said the biggest challenge was managing people.

During a safety inspection at a construction site in Henan province in 2010, he noticed two apparently deserted single-story plank houses that had been locked. Li insisted on opening the doors despite the on-site construction manager's reluctance.

After opening the door, Li was shocked by what he found inside. The house was jammed with cold steel bunk beds that were only a few feet apart from one another, and its dank corridors were covered with peeling paintwork.

"How could they complete the construction work under such harsh and bad living conditions?" Li questioned the managers on the site immediately. "If these workers are your parents and brothers, will you let them work and live here?"

Since then, continuous efforts to improve dormitory conditions were made, with the aim of providing a comfortable environment for the workers to complete the construction work more efficiently.

Now, a maximum of eight employees per room is permitted in the dormitories, and each sleeping room is equipped with fire-control facilities meeting national standards, air conditioning, 24-hour hot water, and safety services.

Li Shuncai and his team celebrate successes of fighting flood and providing disaster relief in August 2016. [Photo courtesy of Construction and Administration Bureau of the Central Route of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project]

Over the past 15 years, Li carried out safety inspections many times at the construction sites. He often spent days at the sites, doing inspections in order to timely address any possible threats to the project and personnel safety.

Once, upon arriving at a construction site, Li abruptly ordered a stop to all operations. Pointing to a tipped-over acetylene cylinder on the ground, Li asked sternly, "Can the acetylene bottle be laid down? It's only two meters to the oxygen cylinder. It's totally against rules. The bottle is very likely to explode. Now stop all the operations."

"It was Li that helped us to avoid a construction accident," said the person in charge of the field work.

The construction of the central route of the water diversion project was completed in 2014. "For 15 years, I have dedicated my life to the project. It's like seeing my kid growing up," said Li, who is now approaching retirement and has graying hair. "Time proves that our efforts are worthy, as nearly 60 million people are benefiting from our water diversion project now."

As the largest project of its kind ever undertaken in the world, the South-to-North Water Diversion Project is bound to exert a far-reaching impact. The engineering team led by Li, which is responsible for the central section of the water diversion project, has set multiple new Chinese and world records, such as the world's first case of large-tube water tunnels traversing under a subway, China's largest water channel that goes through great rivers, and China's largest-scale dam elevation project.

Aerial photo taken in December 2017 showing China's largest water tunnel that goes through the Yellow River. [Photo by Sun Tao/China.org.cn]

With all these achievements, Li decided to share and pass on his experience. He has produced over 100 construction and operational systems and standards, fixed over 1,000 problems, and trained over 10,000 employees on the frontlines.

The evaluation of project maintenance effectiveness was for the first time carried out in 2018 under the guidance of Li, covering 25 sample projects with regard to civil engineering, electro mechanics, water quality control, scientific research, and safety monitoring.

Ni Sheng, an employee at the construction bureau's quality and safety supervision center, worked with Li on formulating regulation and technical standard of the water diversion project.

Ni said Li had kept every technical standard of the water conservancy industry in his mind, and therefore Li could identify problems as precisely as a computer. "Working with him, I feel myself improving each day," Ni said.

Aside from showcasing the rational designs and state-of-the-art technologies, Li said he wants the water diversion project to become a window through which the world could have a better understanding of China.

"The South-to-North Water Diversion Project changes people's concept of time and space. It connects the south and the north of a country, and delivers electricity and water to millions of households."

Li said he hopes his technical standard documents will be useful in spreading construction experience around the world as China helps more countries to build water projects.

"I hope it becomes a window that connects China with the world."