This month, a hundred years after the completion of the Panama Canal, China is expected to finish the first phase of its gigantic South-North Water Transfer Project, known in Chinese as Nanshui beidiao gongcheng — literally, “to divert southern water north.” The phrase evokes the suggestion, attributed to Mao, that “since the south has a great deal of water, and the north very little, we should borrow some of it.”
In realizing Mao’s dream of moving huge quantities of water from areas of plenty to those of want, Beijing is building a modern marvel, this century’s equivalent of the Panama Canal. But whereas the canal inaugurated a century of faith in the ability of human ingenuity to reshape the natural world, the South-North Water Transfer Project is a testament to the limits of engineering solutions to problems of basic environmental scarcity.
China is one of the most water-rich countries in the world. But as Mao observed, its water resources are unevenly distributed and overwhelmingly concentrated in the south and far west. Water scarcity has always been a problem for northern China, but shortages have reached crisis levels as a result of rapid economic development.
For most of the 1990s, northern China’s major river, the Yellow, failed to reach the sea, and the water tables around Beijing and other major northern cities have dropped so low that existing wells cannot tap them. In response, the government has tried to promote water conservation and limit water use. But these measures have had little impact, and there simply isn’t enough water to satisfy growing demands for drinking water, irrigation, energy production and other uses.
Rather than face the political challenge of allocating water resources among these competing interests, Beijing has placed its faith in monumental feats of engineering to slake the north’s growing thirst. The South-North Water Transfer eventually aims to pipe 45 cubic kilometers of water annually northward along three routes in eastern, central and western China. All three pose enormous technical challenges: The eastern and central routes will be channeled under the Yellow River, while the western route entails pumping water over part of the Himalayan mountain range.
The estimated cost of $65 billion is almost certainly too low, and doesn’t include social and ecological impacts. Construction has already displaced hundreds of thousands, and issues the like possible increases in transmission of water-borne diseases have not been properly studied. But Beijing’s calculus is political: It is easier to increase the quantity of water resources, at whatever cost, rather than allocate a limited supply between competing interests.
For an authoritarian regime with weak institutions of governance, this reluctance is understandable. But it also puts China’s economic and ecological future at risk, because Beijing cannot keep increasing supplies of water indefinitely. Already, the southern regions slated to pump water northward are facing water shortages themselves. In the long run, warming in the Himalayas is likely to reduce the flow of China’s major rivers, increasing water scarcity throughout the country.
Further feats of engineering can help China manage some of these impacts, but will not solve the underlying problem of water scarcity. Doing so requires contentious reallocations of water, including by dramatically increasing the cost of water for farmers — something the Communist Party is loath to do.
Ultimately, China needs significant political reform to meet the challenge of water scarcity. In order to make difficult decisions about who gets how much water, the country needs robust, transparent and participatory decision-making mechanisms. Moreover, in order to make policy ideas like water-rights reform work, the legal system and the rule of law must be strengthened. Finally, Beijing needs to stop relying on technology to avoid making hard choices about scarce resources. The United States and the rest of the world need to push the Chinese government to make its development more sustainable through political reform, lest China’s economy and social stability be endangered.
The architects of the Panama Canal overcame the inconvenient separation of two oceans by a narrow strip of land with a gigantic feat of engineering. But solving the problem of water scarcity in China is not so simple. Beijing will find that simply adjusting the supply of water, or of any other critical resource, is not enough: At some point it has to decide who gets how much. And that is a process that, without dramatic reform, is likely to leave the party high and dry.
Scott Moore is Giorgio Ruffolo Doctoral Research Fellow in Sustainability Science at the Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and a doctoral candidate at Oxford University, where he studies Chinese environmental politics.