China has a severe water problem overall. Its resources of freshwater, around 2,000 cubic meters per capita, are one-third of the global average. Coal production, which supplies about three-quarters of China’s energy, already accounts for one-sixth (pdf, p. 3) of total water withdrawals. Between now and 2040 China’s total energy demand is expected to more than double, and be twice that of the US (slide 26). The World Bank has put the annual cost of China’s water problems—specifically, water scarcity and the direct impacts of water pollution—at 2.3% of GDP (pdf, p. xxi) but says it is likely much higher. About 45% of the country’s GDP comes from water-scarce provinces, according to a 2012 report by HSBC and China Water Risk, a consultancy. About 300 million people in China, almost a quarter of its population, drink contaminated water every day. Former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao wasn’t being dramatic in 1999 when he called the country’s water problems a threat to the “survival of the Chinese nation.”
But these shortages are unevenly spread. The North Plain, a region home to a quarter of the population, and which includes Beijing, is especially dry. Here, water tables are falling by two to three meters a year (pdf, p. 194), according to the UN, and posing serious risks to agriculture and food security. Of China’s 22 provinces, 11 were considered “water-stressed,” meaning they have less than 1,000 cubic meters of water per person a year as of 2012. One of the north’s main water sources, the Yellow River, has been shrinking for the past three decades, drying up almost every year before reaching the the sea. Hebei province, which neighbors Beijing, has seen 969 of its 1,052 lakes dry up; some of its farmers water their crops with sewage water. Wang Shucheng, a former minister of water resources, predicted that if groundwater extraction in the north continues at current rates, in 15 years there will be none left.
The solution, as Mao Zedong first said in 1952, is to “borrow a little water from the south.” Southern China is home to four-fifths of the country’s water sources, mostly around the Yangtze River Basin. It took another 50 years after Mao’s suggestion for China to start work on it. Finally, on Dec. 10, the first phase of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project (SNWDP) or Nanshuibeidiao, began operating.
The project’s eventual goal is to move 44.8 billion cubic meters of water across the country every year, more than there is in the River Thames. The infrastructure includes some of the longest canals in the world; pipelines that weave underneath riverbeds; a giant aqueduct; and pumping stations powerful enough to fill Olympic-sized pools in minutes. It is the world’s largest water-transfer project, unprecedented both in the volume of water to be transferred and the distance to be traveled—a total of 4,350 km (2,700 miles), about the distance between the two coasts of America. The US, Israel, and South Africa are home to long-distance water transfer systems, but none on this scale.