The Largest of its Kind Ever: South-North Water Transfer Project in China
Table of Contents
One of the major challenges facing China’s upcoming development is water, which needs to support the country’s 1.4 billion inhabitants and booming industries. Despite being one of the top five nations with the greatest freshwater resources, China faces severe water shortages on a per capita basis, which are further aggravated by a highly uneven spatial distribution of precipitation: the densely populated north suffers from grave water shortages, whereas the south is prone to severe floods . To improve the allocation of water resources, China has embarked on constructing a mega engineering project, the South-North Water Transfer Project.
At a total construction cost of approximately US$ 20 billion and involving the resettlement of over 300,000 people, China’s South-North Water Transfer (henceforth SNWT) project is a major feat of engineering. Its middle and eastern routes are now operational (see Figure 1) and have a combined capacity of 24.3 billion m3 per year, with plans to expand the capacity of both paths.
The purpose of the project is to address a seeming imbalance in the distribution of China’s water resources by transferring water from the Yangtze River to the Hai, Huai and Yellow River basins. To date, the SNWT project is portrayed as a politically neutral, environmentally beneficial and inevitable response to water ‘scarcity in northern China.
This article presents the project’s engineering, water pricing, pollution and environmental impacts at different scales. It examines the project’s machinery, mentality and spatiality, including its narrative, its constitution of objects and subjects in space, its multiple techniques of government, and its physical and administrative assemblages. It does so by analysing English and Chinese academic, media and government documents, including governance arrangements, compensation mechanisms and pollution management.
2 THE PROJECT
The basic logic of the SNWT is to take the relatively more abundant water in the Yangtze River basin to less rich northern regions through three routes: eastern, middle and western. The east route takes water from the Yangtze River upstream of Shanghai (near Yangzhou) and diverts it north via a network of pump stations, rivers, lakes, reservoirs and canals, including the Grand Canal. It supplies water to the provinces of Jiangsu, Anhui, Shandong and Hebei, as well as to the city of Tianjin, providing an additional 14.8 billion m3 per year.
The Eastern route is complete and began delivering water in 2013. The middle (or central) route moves water from the Danjiangkou reservoir on the Han River (a tributary of the Yangtze River) through Hubei, Henan and Hebei provinces to the cities of Beijing and Tianjin. The water level in the Danjiangkou reservoir has been raised by 13 metres to increase its storage capacity, and new canals have been constructed to carry water north, including a tunnel under the Yellow River. Approximately 340 000 people have been resettled for this project. There have been significant land-use changes in the reservoir’s catchment to maintain water quality, including a new ecological forest reserve and the closure of hundreds of small heavily-polluting businesses. The middle route began providing additional water for urban, industrial and agricultural uses in Beijing, Tianjin and elsewhere in North China in December 2014. Its total annual capacity is 9.5 billion m3, with 1.2 billion m3 earmarked for Beijing, 1 billion m3 for Tianjin, 3.5 billion m3 for Hebei Province and 3.8 billion m3 for Henan Province.
For Beijing, diverted water will amount to one-third of its total water use . However, some suggest that given population growth and growing demand in Beijing, the initial phase of the middle route will not provide enough water; hence a second phase of the project is being planned to divert water from the Yangtze River to replenish the Han River and increase the capacity of the middle route. The Western route is even more technically ambitious, with current plans indicating that water will be taken from three tributaries of the upper Yangtze River on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau some 3000–5000 metres above sea level. There has been no ground broken for the development of the western route, and although technical studies have been conducted, there remains no firm commitment to commence construction.
The SNWT project is the world’s largest interbasin transfer scheme, connecting four major river basins and requiring coordinated management of their respective urban, industrial, agricultural and ecological water needs – a historically unprecedented water management challenge given the scale of these basins and their associated water demands, the geographic range of the scheme, and the pace of urbanisation, industrialisation, pollution and population growth in China. The official estimate of the cost of the two completed routes is 124 billion RMB (approximately US$ 20 billion), though other estimates put this figure as high as US$81 billion. The machinery, mentality and spatiality of this unprecedented project are the focus of the next section.
3 GOVERNMENTALITY AND WATER ALLOCATION
This section extends the analysis but adopts a governance lens, examining the SNWT project as a programme of government that attempts to render water and space governable and administrable. The SNWT project can also be seen as an attempt to steer forms of conduct and to render subjects and spaces governable and administrable .
The first dimension of governmentality that we consider is visibility. A form of visibility central to all accounts of the SNWT is the imaginary of water-rich south versus a water-scarce north. Based on this visual and spatial problematisation, the project seeks to ‘balance’ water allocation at the national scale. The four major rivers – the Yangtze, Huai, Hai and Yellow – provide horizontal movement, while the three routes of the SNWT project provide vertical movement.
This imaginary suggests the optimisation of the water resources within China’s territory and a rescaling of hydrological relations: water is no longer flowing west to East as it does naturally; it is also now flowing south to north. In making water legible at this national scale and as an object of federal regulation, the project attempts to put the state’s resources to their most full and profitable use.
To achieve rationalisation of water across space, the SNWT project depends on mobilising a techne of government, including institutional mechanisms and instruments such as water pricing and procedures for water transfers. In this analysis, we focus on the management rather than the construction of the SNWT. Although the infrastructure itself – canals, tunnels, dams, pumps – is a central technology of the project, its development is well enough understood. Yet, the Chinese central state’s capacity to manage water through various mechanisms and instruments, in concert with basin commissions, provinces and municipalities, and other actors, is less well demonstrated.
An institutional structure capable of managing water flows and pollution is being pieced together, primarily through administrative regulations released by the State Council and Ministry of Water Resources (MWR). The regulations place responsibility for pollution control with the Ministry of Environmental Protection, using their network of local monitoring stations. However, Beijing plans to establish its own automated monitoring stations to test for heavy metal contamination. It is not yet clear how pollution will be factored into decision-making given the limited influence of the Ministry of Environmental Protection relative to other ministries. Further research is needed into pollution control along both routes, as this is a key technique to achieve the standardisation and perhaps commodification of SNWT water. The procedure for deciding the volume of water transfers adds even greater complexity.
To sum up, the SNWT project’s complexity and its deeply spatial effects demand administrative assemblages central to rendering water distribution across space governable and administrable. By mobilising a range of techniques and practices, the SNWT project rescales hydrological relations, forming new identities through the problematisation and visualisation of water at a national scale. It depoliticises water scarcity, delimiting a water distribution problem, obscuring other, perhaps more pressing, water management issues in China.
4 HISTORY AND EXPANSION PROPOSALS
The plan was first proposed in 1952 by Mao Zedong, who concluded that “the south has plenty of water, the north much less. If conceivable, the north should borrow a little.” And the SNWT does precisely that — it diverts water along three routes: Eastern, Middle, and Western. The former transfers water through Jiangsu to Shandong and Tianjin by way of the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, which dates back to approximately 2,500 years ago. The Middle route, redirecting water from Hubei province to Beijing and Tianjin, has been in use since 2014. The latter and most controversial route has not yet been built.
In May 2021, President Xi Jinping declared that China would press ahead with the world’s largest water diversion project. The Western route’s road map is split into two categories: modest plans from the government and striving proposals from scholars. This route will alter 17 billion m3, and according to official news, the Eastern and Middle paths divert 14.8 billion m3 and 13 billion m3 of water per year, respectively. In practice, the volume of water looked as if to was much less, with annual flows of only around 1 billion cubic meters in the East and 6 billion in the Middle route .
The official plan for the westernmost track links the Yangtze and Yellow rivers across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to transfer 17 billion m3 of water to Gansu and neighbouring provinces each year. This amount is massive but much smaller than two alternate water allocation plans targeting water from the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau. The Shooting Canal (Great Western Route) was a previous proposal by water experts in the 1990s. By building a barrage in Tibet, 200 billion m3 of water could be diverted from Sichuan to Beijing and Tianjin. It was later concluded that such a work is neither technically feasible nor necessary.
A separate proposal from 2017 on the Red Flag River was introduced to divert 60 billion m3 of water annually from transboundary rivers on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, comprising the upstream of the Brahmaputra, Mekong, and Salween, to northwest China. This would create 133,333 km2 of arable land in Xinjiang and a 150,000 km2 greenbelt in the northwest. However, its feasibility has been disputed by academics and geographers. Furthermore, the Tianhe project was suggested by scientists from Tsinghua and Qinghai universities in 2015 as a possible alternative to the Western route. The Tianhe would be the world’s largest weather modification and artificial rainmaking system project employing glaciogenic cloud seeding to create 5-10 billion m3 of rain annually above northern China. It was included in Qinghai’s 13th Five Year Plan.
5 DOMESTIC AND INTERNATIONAL IMPLICATIONS
As Xi Jinping once stated, the lifeline of food production lies in the country’s water conservancy systems, from where the Western route is needed to maintain water and food security while balancing regional economic development. Aside from struggling with national water quality, quantity, and unequal distribution, China faces a lack of arable land: estimates suggest that only 14 per cent of the country’s surface is tillable. With some of this land heavily contaminated by pollutants, food safety and security, as well as water scarcity concerns, are exacerbated. Due to a changing dietary scene, including bigger demand for water-intensive produce like meat, these challenges will continue to increase. Hence, in the Chinese leaders’ eyes, the Western route could solve northern China’s water shortage problems and protect China’s overall food security.
However, social and ecological concerns raised by environmentalists and scientists have delayed the construction of this milestone. As both the Red Flag River and the Shuotian Canal would need to cross earthquake-prone areas and mountain ranges, there are worries that they could result in seismic and environmental consequences such as landslides.
Unlike the central government, provincial administrations are less concerned about equity of access to resources. On the one hand, meridional provinces from where water will be transferred, particularly Sichuan and Hubei, located at the Yangtze River’s upstream, strongly oppose the route. Not only does diverting water from them threaten their own water supply, leading to fears of water scarcity and droughts, but it would also undermine the local hydropower sectors. In Sichuan, home to the nation’s largest hydropower market, governments have publicly supported local scientists who strongly dispute the Western route’s feasibility . On the other hand, Western provinces, such as Gansu and Qinghai, support the project. They have confidence that it will encourage regional socio-economic development by delivering water for agriculture, local industries, and coal. Given their immense water demand, Western provinces prefer the ambitious unofficial proposals. For example, the Gansu provincial management has supported research on various options to divert waters from Tibet (the Brahmaputra River) to Gansu.
In this sense, India has long feared China’s plans to divert the Brahmaputra could cause water shortages at home. However, this may be a misperception: the official Western route plans to divert waters from the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, not from transnational watercourses like the Brahmaputra. What is more, these unofficial tenders are not being seriously considered by the central government. Still, there is no consensus on the actual impacts of the works on the downstream region’s water supply. To some Indian scholars, China’s resource ambitions and alleged “weaponisation” of water have caused alarm. As little as seven per cent of the Brahmaputra’s flow comes from China, so even if the radical alternatives were to be constructed, the actual impacts on water flow downstream would be limited.
Finally, for an increasing international sector, rather than relying on these mega projects to address national water challenges, China should moderate rising water demand, encourage water use efficiency, and tackle water pollution. Given that farming water usage accounts for most of the country’s water demand, the government should balance water and food security and consider structural reforms to its agricultural sector.
6 ALTERNATIVE WATER SUPPLY SOLUTIONS
In the past decades, supply-oriented solutions have dominated attempts to resolve urban water shortages in China. As mentioned above, it is commonly believed that the heterogeneous distribution of freshwater, both spatially and temporally, aggravates water shortages, especially in northern China. The contradiction between water supply and demand is more prominent because the Chinese government is inclined to apply a supply-oriented solution to solve water shortages in the north.
Among numerous engineering water projects, inter-basin water transfer projects have become the primary choice; among these, the South to North Water Transfer Project. Although the SNWTP will certainly alleviate local water shortages, such as increasing the amount of water per capita and making more water available for domestic and industrial users, some researchers argue that the water-energy nexus of this project is inefficient . They suggest that the government should solve water shortages by implementing water use policies or local water-saving projects.
Actually, during the construction of the SNWTP, smaller-scale demand-oriented projects were implemented in northern China, including wastewater reclamation, seawater desalination and rainwater harvesting. Both have the potential to resolve quantity simultaneously- and quality-related water scarcities. Nevertheless, these demand-oriented projects have also generated controversy over their energy consumption and capital costs: wastewater reclamation and rainwater harvesting usually require additional chemicals and energy consumption and emit air pollutants. Therefore, for a rapidly developing city in north China, are supply-oriented solutions or demand-oriented solutions better able to meet the water supply requirements? This question demands careful and empirical analysis.
Some supply-oriented solutions, such as reclaimed water systems (RWS) and rainwater harvesting systems (RHS), are still to be evaluated. One would like to see more evidence on how the two solutions influence urban development under the constraints of equal energy consumption, capital cost and potential availability. To analyse the above issues, the assessment of supporting effects for urban economies and ecology cannot be overlooked.
 Rogers, S., Barnett, J., Webber, M., Finlayson, B., & Wang, M. (2016). Governmentality and the conduct of water: China’s South-North Water Transfer Project. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 41(4), 429–441. doi:10.1111/tran.12141