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ENVIRONMENT-CHINA: Gov’t Denies Droughts Caused by Big Dams

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Aug 30 2006 (IPS) - China’s worst drought in fifty years has forced Chinese leaders to defend their record of building vast hydro-engineering works at a time when the country’s finite water resources are increasingly depleted by population growth and rapid economic development.

Authorities have vehemently denied that continuous drought and shortage of drinking water in southwest China, which has affected the lives of 17 million people, are somehow related to the completion this year of the Three Gorges Dam – the world’s largest dam straddling the Yangtze River.

“The record-low water levels in some parts of Yangtze and its tributaries and the drought are not directly related to the Three Gorges Dam,” Hu Jiajun, spokesperson for the Yangtze Water Conservancy Committee said at a press conference this week. “The dam can only store as much water as is brought by the river.”

Officials blamed the adverse climate for the unprecedented drought afflicting Sichuan province and the municipality of Chongqing. “The abnormalities are caused by global warming and the overall change in the world’s climate,” said Dong Wenjie, director of the National Weather Forecast Centre. “It has nothing to do with the completion and operation of the Three Gorges Dam.”

Planned and built amid nation-wide controversy, the dam is cast by Chinese communist leaders as a major engineering feat that would tame the waters of the mighty Yangtze and bring prosperity to an area long plagued by devastating floods.

But the month-long droughts in the Yangtze basin this summer have spurred speculations that the massive dam has upset the natural balance and is causing the decrease in rainfall. Opponents of the project have long asserted that the dam will have untold ecological effects, changing the climate of the entire region.

Drought has affected also the flow of the Mekong River, or Lancang, as it is known in Chinese, where Chinese authorities have diverted water to build the Manwan and Dachaoshan dams, and are considering a series of new reservoirs.

The current run-off of the Lancang river, which flows through the country’s southwestern Yunnan province, has been the record low since 1953, according to reports in the local newspaper Kunming Evening News.

Renewed fears over China’s water supply come as the country’s leaders are considering new huge water-diversion programmes as part of a national strategy for transferring water from China’s relatively abundant rivers in the south to the increasingly parched north and northwest.

In July, Chinese engineers completed a critical section of the “South-North Water Transfer Project” – the biggest water scheme in the country’s history that will cost more than the 25 billion US dollar Three Gorges Dam and take some 50 years to complete..

They finished two tunnels in the central China’s Hebei province, which form the backbone of the Central route, carrying water from the Yangtze River up north to Beijing. The Central route is being given priority because of worries that Beijing may run short of water for the 2008 Olympic Games.

Two-thirds of China’s roughly 600 cities suffer water shortages, while in Beijing and some 100 other cities there are serious shortfalls, according to the ministry of water resources. In 2008 when it plays host to the Olympics Beijing may find itself short of up to 1.1 billion cu. metres of water, the ministry says.

The Eastern route of the water transfer project, also under construction, is to use parts of the Great Canal waterway constructed some 2,500 years ago, along with a newly built system of canals.

The Western route is regarded as the most technologically challenging one because it would involve erecting mega-dams and building tunnels through remote mountains in western China. The work is to be conducted at great altitudes and in areas that are frozen for much of the year.

Chinese officials say the Western route would harness water from rivers cascading from the Tibetan plateau and carry it to Qinghai province and other poor western areas. The route would also be needed to feed the Yellow River’s upper reaches amid soaring industrial demand, according to Li Guoying, director of the Yellow River Water Conservancy Committee.

“When the economic and social development of the northwest reaches a certain level and the potential of water-saving measures is exhausted, this project will be launched,” he told the media at a news briefing this month. Construction of the Western route estimated at 37 billion US dollars, could start as early as 2010.

This most westerly route is also controversial because it would tap water from the Jinsha and other rivers in Tibetan areas of western China, damming some of the last remaining virgin rivers in the country.

In the last three years already, official plans to build hydropower stations all along the Nu and Jinsha rivers, which plunge from Tibet into Yunnan province have sparked a public outcry and forced the central authorities to slow the project down.

The “South-North Water Transfer Project” though, is expected to go ahead as planned. To justify the need for action, officials point out that North China has 58 percent of the cultivated land and 45 percent of the country’s population but only 19 percent of the country’s water resources. All over northern China, rivers now run dry in their low reaches for much of the year.

In 1997, the Yellow River, once known as ‘China’s Sorrow’ for its ability to inflict destruction with its flood-swollen waters, ran dry for 226 days. This year, despite the unusually heavy rains, the northern plains have continued to suffer from drought and the underground tables have been rapidly sinking.

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