Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 19

“Pigs, chickens, cows–there were corpses everywhere, including people,” said Zhao Zhengwu, a soybean grower and resident of Guangming. Guangming, some 40 miles south of Wuhan, was inundated in the great floods of 1998 and has not fully recovered. “We used to be able to grow all kinds of crops,” said Zhao, speaking to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. “Now we can hardly feed ourselves.”

Each year China’s longest river, the Yangtze, spills its banks, kills hundreds and destroys both homes and lives. This year more than 1,500 died during the flooding. Unofficial sources say that hundreds more were lost, especially in flash floods and landslides in upland areas. People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, reports that the 2002 flood season also “victimized” 190 million people. Slightly more than 1 million homes were destroyed, and almost 33 million acres of cropland were affected.

This year’s toll, as high as it was, still does not compare to the losses four years ago. In 1998 more than 4,000 people were killed. There’s too much water in China.

Actually, the real problem is that there’s too little water. As floods ravaged the middle of the country this year, a draught parched the north. Shandong Province is facing its worst water shortage in a century. Rainfall this year has been about half of what it should be. Shandong’s plight is ironic: The province has a long coastline.

Even along the mighty Yangtze, which accounts for 36 percent of the nation’s “water resources,” some fifty-nine cities are short of this precious commodity according to official estimates. In about half of these cities the shortages are “serious.”

The draught is much more serious in the north, along the Yellow River, “the cradle of Chinese civilization.” Per capita water resources in the river’s area, the central government says, stand at less than a third of the international alarm level. In some northern cities the shortage is “critical.” The Yellow River has stopped flowing to the sea every year since 1985. In 1997 it was dry for most of the year, 227 days.

The rivers are drying up, and the deserts are advancing from the north. Today, 30 percent of the country’s land is desert. The figure increases each year as the sands move south, both in the eastern and western portions of the country. This relentless process has seen China’s deserts merge as they swallow up more precious land.

The Chinese have not yet found a way to halt “desertification.” Nor have they been able to prevent land from sinking under its own weight. A funnel-shaped depression of about 25,000 square miles is forming in North China due to excessive usage of subterranean water. Parts of Tianjin, one of the largest cities in the People’s Republic, have dropped by about 20 feet for the same reason.

In August of this year the Science and Technology Ministry warned, “The water resources crisis even threatens the future survival of the Chinese nation.” Some environmentalists say that northern China’s ecological crisis may soon rank as the world’s worst.

At first glance, it doesn’t appear that the People’s Republic should have such “alarming” water problems. After all, the country accounts for a fifth of the global population but has a slightly higher percentage of the world’s water resources.

So why is China plagued by floods and draughts? Li Xueyong, vice minister of science and technology, gives us one answer: “We have all along been haunted by insufficient capability in developing science and technology.” Li is certainly correct, and the People’s Republic does need better expertise. Yet China’s problems are neither scientific nor technological in origin.

The root of the water problem is political. “Man must conquer nature,” said Mao Zedong. Today, nature is just beginning its counterattack in this war. As the Chinese today can see, a struggle against the environment is an undertaking that they cannot win. “Maoist China provides an example of extreme human interference in the natural world,” writes Judith Shapiro of American University. “The state’s battle against individualism, feudalism, capitalism and revisionism was also a battle against nature.”

Today, China appears to have escaped from the lunacy of the Maoist years. But as Shapiro tells us, “the elements that contributed to environmental degradation under Mao remain present, if in different guises and to different degrees.” Nowhere is this clearer than when it comes to water resources.

China had twenty-two large dams when the Communist Party seized power fifty-three years ago. Now the country has about 22,000 of them, slightly less than half the world’s total. As other countries tear down their dams, the People’s Republic is building them at a fast pace. Soon it will have the world’s largest–the mother of all affronts to Mother Nature. The Three Gorges Dam, in Hubei Province in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River, trivializes adjectives like “mammoth” and “gargantuan.”

This “monument to Communist Party hubris” is projected to cost US$24.6 billion by the time the reservoir is filled in 2009. That sum is more than double the original figure forecast in 1993 during the early stages of construction. The dam, when it is fully operational, will generate 84.7 billion kilowatts annually. The lake behind the dam will be 400 miles long. Approximately 1.1 million people either have moved or will move to make way for the dam and the reservoir. The project will take seventeen years to complete.

The dam’s great size will cause greater problems. People’s Daily quotes a vice minister of land and resources who says that the area of the reservoir will still be prone to “geological disasters” and that the rise of the water level will “likely” cause more of them. The reservoir could become the world’s biggest cesspool as wastes and chemicals mix to form a toxic brew. Silting will increase as the flow of the river decreases. Experts say that the dam will not be a practical solution to flooding. And then there is the matter of climate change: The reservoir will be so large that it will increase temperatures and cause crop changes in surrounding areas. “The rise in water levels will certainly bring changes,” says Zhu Changhan, of the China Meteorological Administration. “And those changes can’t be reversed.”

Can’t be reversed? The permanence of the transformation of the environment is frightening because, if past projects in China are any guide, the dam’s effect on its surroundings will come as a surprise to the central government. As the Maoists sought to remake the landscape of the People’s Republic, they ran afoul of Murphy’s Law and, worse, the law of unintended consequences. According to legend, the first Chinese ruler sought to control floods. Now, four millennia later, the Chinese nation has brutalized but still not tamed its rivers.