Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 20

By Gordon G. Chang

President Jiang Zemin has recently urged China’s young to “Protect the Mother Rivers.” If the truth be told, Jiang’s exhortation is a call to resist the nation’s environmental policies. The biggest threat to China’s waterways is the country’s own leaders. Central government leaders, for all the mistakes that they have made in the past, keep on trying to radically alter China’s rivers. The next project makes the Three Gorges Dam look unambitious in comparison. At a projected cost of US$58 billion, the “South-to-North Water Diversion Project” may be the single most expensive environmental project in the history of the world. The plan is to take water from the mighty Yangtze and flow it to the north to the Yellow River in three channels of almost 1,000 miles apiece. Associated plans would then take water from the Yellow River and move it farther north.


The Yangtze has too much water, and the Yellow River has too little. What could be a better solution than to divert water north where it is needed? Answer: conservation, the only long-term solution for the People’s Republic. The Yellow River runs dry because people along its banks use too much of its water. The diversion project, of course, does nothing to solve the underlying cause; it merely defers the symptoms of a bad resources policy, which has encouraged the grossly inefficient use of water.

China wastes a great deal of this precious natural resource. As state media points out, China’s water consumption is equal to that of the United States even though the gross domestic product of the People’s Republic is only one-eighth of America’s. Only now is China getting serious about tackling the issue of wastage.

China’s revised water law just went into effect, on October 1, National Day. The law generally requires enterprises to use new water-efficient technology. Cities are supposed to increase waste-water treatment and promote water saving appliances and the use of recycled water. The revised law also requires a charging system for water and imposes penalties for exceeding water usage limits. “It is the first time there has been such a specific emphasis on water conservation,” says Ma Jun of Sinosphere, a Beijing environmental consulting firm. Previous laws only encouraged use of water. But new legislation does not a water-efficient society make. “It is not good enough to just have good laws,” Ma Jun reminds us. “You have also got to enforce them.”

While China is making one small step for conservation, it is continuing all its Maoist-style water projects, such as the Yangtze diversion plan. “This is central government policy, so it must be a good thing for the country,” said Zhang Jize, a 32-year-old peasant, to The New York Times. Maybe not. The project’s three channels will carry about half the flow of the Yangtze to the Yellow River. The amount of water to be taken out of that waterway is so great that engineers are concerned that the sea will flow into the mouth of the river at Shanghai. Some worry that the Yangtze could dry up in three decades.


Zhang Jize will probably be among the 370,000 people to be relocated so that the diversion project can be built. He has already been moved once to make way for a dam. Where will he be sent this time? China already tills every available acre, and more than 3 million souls have been or will be uprooted (more than 1 million for the Three Gorges Dam and 2.5 million to clear the Yangtze flood plain after the devastating 1998 floods). So it’s hard to see where Zhang will go. Some of the displaced will be shoehorned onto existing land and many will undoubtedly be resettled onto fields cleared from forests for this purpose.


Clearing even more forests? This tactic already aggravates flooding and desertification and is contrary to the thrust of China’s current policies, which are now trying to reverse the process of deforestation. Beijing, for example, just unveiled another of its mega projects, this time a ten-year effort to plant thousands of square miles of trees. China’s biggest effort of this sort will create forests that are nearly the size of Spain and larger than Germany. The plan, if successful, will increase woodland areas from 16 to 26 percent of the land mass of the People’s Republic. When it comes to altering the natural environment, no project is too large for China’s leaders these days.

Many trees have been planted, but many of them have also died–mostly from lack of water. And tree planting, Beijing-style, has led to its own environmental problems, such as the unusually large storms of locusts that have plagued China’s capital and other cities this year. “I’ve lived in Beijing for more than twenty years and I’ve never seen so many locusts.” Said Professor Zhang Long of the Agriculture University. The Ministry of Agriculture says that the programs to convert farmland to forests are increasing the locusts’ breeding grounds. Others say the locusts are an omen.


Beijing has proven its ability to produce, in the words of the South China Morning Post, “a regular flow of billion-dollar promises to battle smoggy skies, polluted lakes and sludge-filled rivers.” The issue is whether the country’s leadership can improve the environment. “China has not fundamentally reversed the trend of a deteriorating ecosystem,” said Lei Jiafu, deputy administrator of the State Administration of Forestry. Lei is certainly correct. Yet it would be more precise to say that Beijing has not even arrested the decline.

Why has it not done so? Blame, among other things, Mao Zedong zany population growth policies. Too many people strain China’s waterways to the limit. The nation’s leaders, recognizing that the environmental problems are enormous, feel that only enormous solutions can work. But as we have seen in the past, the Communist Party’s big solutions cause big problems.

“The natural condition has gone through several hundred million years of evolution and change,” says Xu Kuangdi, who is studying the Yangtze diversion project in his new role as Communist Party Secretary of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, “so if you change it drastically, nature will punish you.” Mother Nature is already punishing the People’s Republic, and until the Chinese learn to live with nature rather than attacking it, her penalties can only become more severe.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China, published by Random House.

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