Tag Archives: transboundary river basins

The Unquenchable Thirst

South-to-North Water Transfer Project. image from wikipedia

Most of the drinking water consumed in Beijing has travelled 1,432km (895 miles), roughly the distance from New York to Orlando, Florida. Its journey begins in a remote and hilly part of central China at the Danjiangkou reservoir, on the bottom of which lies the drowned city of Junzhou. The water gushes north by canal and pipeline, crosses the Yellow river by burrowing under it, and arrives, 15 days later, in the water-treatment plants of Beijing. Two-thirds of the city’s tap water and a third of its total supply now comes from Danjiangkou.

This winter and spring, the reservoir was the capital’s lifeline. No rain or snow fell in Beijing between October 23rd 2017 and March 17th 2018—by far the longest drought on record. Yet the city suffered no supply disruptions, unlike Shanxi province to the west, where local governments rationed water. The central government is exultant, since the project which irrigates Beijing was built at vast cost and against some opposition.

The South-to-North Water Diversion Project—to give the structure its proper name—is the most expensive infrastructure enterprise in the world. It is the largest transfer of water between river basins in history, and China’s main response to its worst environmental threat, which is (despite all the pollution) lack of water.

The route between Beijing and Danjiangkou, which lies on a tributary of the Yangzi, opened in 2014. An eastern route opened in 2013 using the ancient Grand Canal between Hangzhou and the capital. (Jaw-dropping hydrological achievements are a feature of Chinese history.) A third link is planned on the Tibetan plateau, but since that area is prone to earthquakes and landslides, it has been postponed indefinitely…

Downstream from Danjiangkou, pollution has proved intractable. By diverting water from the Yangzi, the project has made the river more sluggish. It has become less able to wash away contaminants and unable to sustain wetlands, which act as sponges and reduce flooding. To compensate for water taken from their rivers, local governments are also building dams wherever they can to divert it back again. Shaanxi province, for example, is damming the Han river to transfer water to its depleted river Wei….Worst of all, the project diverts not only water but money and attention from China’s real water problem: waste and pollution.

Excerpts from Water: Massive Diversiion, Economist, Apr. 7, 2018

Damming the Mekong River

What looked like an admittedly temporary reprieve for the swift currents and extraordinary biodiversity of the Mekong river is now over. In December the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body made up of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, called again for approval of a potentially devastating dam at Xayaburi in northern Laos to be withheld until more is known about its effect on the lower Mekong. Apart from high up in the gorges of south-western China, the Mekong remains undammed. But now CH. Karnchang, a Thai construction giant contracted to build a $3.8 billion dam at Xayaburi has told the Bangkok Stock Exchange that dam construction officially began on March 15th, and that 5,000 workers have just been hired.

The news has triggered an angry response from riparian neighbours. The December agreement, calling for further scientific study of the environmental impacts, included Laos. Opponents of the dam argue that the Xayaburi dam will cause immense harm to ecosystems and imperil 65m South-East Asians who rely on the Mekong, the world’s biggest inland fishery, for their sustenance.  Cambodia’s water-resources minister, Lim Kean Hor, sent a strong protest letter to Laos. He called for an immediate halt to construction until an independent assessment has been completed. Japan has just agreed to fund a study on Mekong dams, under the auspices of the MRC. Vietnam strongly backs Cambodia, and has repeatedly called for no more dams to be built on the Mekong for at least ten years. The Lao government’s failure formally to notify its Mekong partners about the construction, allowing the dam to proceed under the radar, clearly undermines the credibility of the MRC’s consultation processes. (pdf) In truth, though the Mekong Agreement signed in 1995, which gave birth to the commission, requires the four nations to consult and respect neighbours’ concerns, final decisions are left to each sovereign state.

A “Save the Mekong” campaign, chiefly among Thai non-government organisations (NGOs) has been gathering force. The NGOs complain of silence from the commission’s head office, based in the Lao capital of Vientiane. The MRC appears incapable even of sending a monitoring team to the dam site.   Perhaps Cambodia will file a complaint against Laos in an international court. More likely, as Niwat Roykaew, chairman of the Chiang Khong Mekong Conservation Group, suggests, local residents might have no choice but to use sit-ins and other obstructions in order to shut down the Mekong “friendship bridges” between Thailand and Laos, should the MRC fail to compel Laos to suspend the dam construction.

A dam on the Mekong: Opening the floodgates, Economist, May 5, 2012, at 43