Water Security is National Security

Water resources and how they are managed impact almost all aspects of society and the economy, in particular health, food production and security, domestic water supply and sanitation, energy, industry, and the functioning of ecosystems. Under present climate variability, water stress is already high, particularly in many developing countries, and climate change adds even more urgency for action. Without improved water resources management, the progress towards poverty reduction targets, the Millennium Development Goals, and sustainable development in all its economic, social and environ- mental dimensions, will be jeopardized. UN Water.Org

Sunday, March 23, 2014

How NASA Can Save Us Billions of Gallons of Water

Here’s something to add to your doomsday list of natural resources that people need to survive but are threatened by climate change: snow.

It’s a key source of freshwater for more than 1 billion people across the globe, slaking thirst, irrigating croplands, and driving turbines that generate electricity. Conveniently, in much of the world, snow also acts as a natural reservoir, storing water during wet seasons, then rationing it out slowly during drier summer months. But today, growing populations, warming temperatures, and changing weather patterns are straining that supply like never before. “June is the new July,” says Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company in Colorado. “Snowmelt comes earlier than it used to, and it all happens in one big flood.”

Which means that knowing exactly how much snow is in the highlands—and when it’s coming down to lower elevations to feed rivers, aqueducts, and irrigation channels—is ever more important. But how do you measure something that’s spread over thousands of miles of steep, rugged, alpine terrain?

Tom Painter, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has an answer: by measuring snow from thousands of feet in the air. Using sophisticated, aircraft-borne sensors that gauge snow’s depth and the amount of light it reflects, Painter and his team are assembling the most accurate measurement ever made of just how much water the mountains hold.

This is welcome news in California, where the water content of accumulated snow is at historically low levels. Runoff from the Sierra Nevada mountains provides about a third of the entire state’s water, and up to 80 percent in some areas, supplying tens of millions of people and almost 1 million acres of farmland.

Painter can’t make it snow, but he can provide more and better data to water managers, who need to plan how to most efficiently fill their reservoirs; farmers deciding which crops to plant and when; and cities trying to figure out if they’ll have enough water to supply their residents—or will need to start rationing. “The demand for knowledge about water resources is at an all-time high,” says Painter, a gregarious, athletically built 46-year-old.

For decades, state water officials have estimated the snowpack’s water content by a straightforward method that will appeal to steampunk aficionados: They clamber into the mountains on snowshoes and stick aluminum tubes into the snow. The tubes indicate depth while collecting a sample revealing water volume. More recently, California has added a network of tabletop-size scales scattered through the mountains that electronically transmit the weight of snow that has fallen on them.

Both systems yield reliable measurements but only of the snow where the measurement is taken; extrapolating out from that to a whole basin, or a whole mountain range, is better than guesswork but less than precise. What’s more, both the scales and the human surveyors are concentrated at lower elevations, leaving scientists to wonder what lies farther uphill. “The old system worked OK historically because there was always enough water,” says Painter. “But now it’s all been allocated out, and demand is starting to exceed supply.” More


Solar Powered Reverse Osmosis in the Caribbean

Special Programme for Adaptation to Climate Change (SPACC) Implementation of Adaptation Measures in Coastal Zones

TECHNICAL NOTE 5C/SPACC-12-05-01 (15 May, 2012)

Implementation of adaptation measures to address the absence of fresh water and coastal vulnerabilities in Bequia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines

The Special Program for Adaptation to Climate Change (SPACC) pilot project “Implementation of adaptation measures to address the absence of fresh water and coastal vulnerabilities in Bequia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines”, was implemented in Bequia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines by the World Bank, acting as the implementing agency for the Global Environment Fund (GEF), and the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC), acting as the executing agency.

Background Bequia is the largest of the Grenadines islands, approximately 7 square miles in size, with a population of 4,874 (1991 census). Due to its size and geology, the island has no surface water and no known underground source. Approximately 30% of the island is covered with scrub vegetation of no market significance. The livelihood of the people of Bequia is tied to the surrounding coastal sea. Most natives are fisher folks or sailors. Given the absence of surface water and the calciferous nature of the soil, fresh water resource is a major issue for Bequia. Bequia’s need for water Bequia’s very limited water resources are being threatened by climate change. For people living in Bequia it is clear that dry spells are becoming unusually long, or that the pattern of the rainy season has changed. Water availability to key critical ecosystems is at greater risk as the limited water available is tapped or harvested by households due to the rain water supply systems that no longer meet their water needs. At present, there is no water distribution system in the island of Bequia. Each household has traditionally solved its water supply needs by building individual rain collection systems. It is indicated that up to 30% of the construction cost of a house in Bequia is allocated to the rain harvesting system.

The community and climate change

Of particular concern is the Paget Farms community (Figure 1) where the least wealthy population of the island lives. The entire community relies exclusively on rain water harvesting as the source of potable domestic water. In fact, many of the households in the Paget Farms community, the population targeted by this pilot, are equipped with underground storage that fill during the rainy season. The others utilize one or more glass reinforced plastic tanks that do not always satisfy their needs throughout the season and water supplies have sometimes had to be supplemented by purchase of water transported by barge from Kingstown. Current trends in precipitation confirm what Global Circulation Models predict: there are longer periods of drought, followed by shorter, more intense precipitation events. Moreover, sea level rise is threatening coastal aquifers through saline intrusion. Both factors are already threatening water supply stability for already stressed populations, which in turn Figure 1 : Paget Farm community in Bequia, with Fisheries Complex in the foreground leads to over-exploitation of aquifers and natural resources, endangering the fragile ecosystems and associated biodiversity.

The project: building a carbon neutral reverse osmosis desalination plant

The pilot project in Bequia was aimed at exploring an integrated, sustainable solution to face these challenges: the combination of a renewable, carbon-free energy generation source (photovoltaic system), with a reverse osmosis desalination plant whose input is inexhaustible sea water. The low-maintenance renewable energy source offsets the high energy demand of the plant by providing all the energy required plus some excess energy for the island, with the additional revenue generated covering operation and maintenance costs. This combination has been proven to be both technically and economically viable, and showcases a robust, sustainable approach to the issue, with a very strong replication potential elsewhere in the Caribbean, where similar zones are suffering similar stress. Download PDF

As the report above states that 'Current trends in precipitation confirm what Global Circulation Models predict: there are longer periods of drought, followed by shorter, more intense precipitation events. Moreover, sea level rise is threatening coastal aquifers through saline intrusion.', all Small Island Developing States (SIDS) should be implementing Plan B. A Plan B is necessary from the perspective of energy security. Should the geo-political situation in the Persian Gulf deteriorate the price of petroleum (oil) could rise dramatically making water unaffordable to residents of islands wholly dependant on fossil fuel produced electricity for their water production. The Cayman Islands has no Plan B. The response from the Water Authority, when questioned what their options were if the was a spike in the cost of diesel stated that they would have to raise their cost to the consumer. Editor


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Recycling Water on the Space Station


Today is World Water Day

Conserve and recycle water.

Life is Water and water is life!

22nd March is the annual World Water Day which focuses attention on the importance of freshwater and advocates for the sustainable management of freshwater resources. Each year, World Water Day highlights a specific aspect of freshwater. This year's international theme highlights the issue of "Water and Energy". The Main objective is to draw attention to this topic and to show the close linkages between these two basic needs.

In Somaliland water is in extremely scarce. Only 43% of the population have access to improved water sources. The lack of water is a major concern for both urban and rural populations. For livestock, water is essential and the population is reliant on rain-fed dams, balleys and water pans.

Responding to the water shortage in Somaliland, the Minster of Water Resources with help from its partners wished to promote "Rain Water Harvesting" for World Water Day. This theme will raise awareness and promote actions at the local level. During the World Water Day, Somaliland Government, EU officials (The largest water sector donor in Somaliland), UN agencies and International NGOs will promote the importance of "Rain Water Harvesting". It will generate local interest among Somaliland people and both urban and rural communities will be targeted. In addition, the link between rainwater and "Water & Energy" will be made by promoting rainwater harvesting as a low-cost, readily available and energy-saving method of water collection, which does not require any external energy inputs, unlike most other forms of water supply which require motorized pumping, road transport, human resources, etc.

Every person has the right to have access to safe drinking water. Access to clean water is the key to finding a quality life free from water-borne diseases. Good health starts with having access to clean water. In developing countries, almost 80% of diseases are caused by poor water hygiene. One in every five child deaths is attributed to water-related diseases. Especially, children are more vulnerable to diseases transmitted through diseases.

European Union has made their commitment to reduce the burden of water scarcity in Somaliland and is funding significant water programmes in Somaliland the moment. The EU is the largest water sector donor in Somaliland. The goal of EU-funded water programmes is to improve the quality and quantity of fresh water available to Somaliland people and its future generations. These Water programmes are being implemented by a different partners such UN-Habitat, UNICEF, Caritas and Terresolidali. The EU is committed to Somaliland development and growth.

Among these projects, Hargiesa Urban Water Supply Upgrading Project- HUWSUP- is the largest European Union funded water programme in Somaliland and is implemented by UN-Habitat in partnership with Hargeisa Water Agency (HWA) and the Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR).

The principal water infrastructure for Hargeisa was constructed in the 1970s to supply what was then a city of 180,000 inhabitants. Following rapid urbanisation and resettlement, the estimated population of the city is now over 750,000 people, while the daily supply from the existing water system is just 9 million litres – the same as it was in 1988, with only about a quarter of the current population. The

chronic lack of water is only half the story. The twenty-five- to forty-year-old pumping mains between Geed Deeble and Hargeisa are heavily deteriorated and regularly burst, leaving the city without piped water. Throughout the year, Hargeisa Water Agency carries out continuous maintenance of the old pipeline that brings water to the growing city of Hargeisa. More


Friday, March 21, 2014

Egypt gets muscular over Nile dam

When Egypt’s then-president Mohamed Morsi said in June 2013 that “all options” including military intervention, were on the table if Ethiopia continued to develop dams on the Nile River, many dismissed it as posturing. But experts claim Cairo is deadly serious about defending its historic water allotment, and if Ethiopia proceeds with construction of what is set to become Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam, a military strike is not out of the question.

Relations between Egypt and Ethiopia have soured since Ethiopia began construction on the 4.2 billion dollar Grand Renaissance Dam in 2011.

Egypt fears the new dam, slated to begin operation in 2017, will reduce the downstream flow of the Nile, which 85 million Egyptians rely on for almost all of their water needs. Officials in the Ministry of Irrigation claim Egypt will lose 20 to 30 percent of its share of Nile water and nearly a third of the electricity generated by its Aswan High Dam.

Ethiopia insists the Grand Renaissance Dam and its 74 billion cubic metre reservoir at the headwaters of the Blue Nile will have no adverse effect on Egypt’s water share. It hopes the 6,000 megawatt hydroelectric project will lead to energy self-sufficiency and catapult the country out of grinding poverty.

“Egypt sees its Nile water share as a matter of national security,” strategic analyst Ahmed Abdel Halim tells IPS. “To Ethiopia, the new dam is a source of national pride, and essential to its economic future.”

The dispute has heated up since Ethiopia began diverting a stretch of the Nile last May, with some Egyptian parliamentarians calling for sending commandos or arming local insurgents to sabotage the dam project unless Ethiopia halts construction.

Ethiopia’s state-run television responded last month with a report on a visit to the site by army commanders, who voiced their readiness to “pay the price” to defend the partially-built hydro project.

Citing a pair of colonial-era treaties, Egypt argues that it is entitled to no less than two-thirds of the Nile’s water and has veto power over any upstream water projects such as dams or irrigation networks.

Accords drawn up by the British in 1929 and amended in 1959 divvied up the Nile’s waters between Egypt and Sudan without ever consulting the upstream states that were the source of those waters.

The 1959 agreement awarded Egypt 55.5 billion cubic metres of the Nile’s 84 billion cubic metre average annual flow, while Sudan received 18.5 billion cubic metres. Another 10 billion cubic metres is lost to evaporation in Lake Nasser, which was created by Egypt’s Aswan High Dam in the 1970s, leaving barely a drop for the nine other states that share the Nile’s waters.

While the treaty’s water allocations appear gravely unfair to upstream Nile states, analysts point out that unlike the mountainous equatorial nations, which have alternative sources of water, the desert countries of Egypt and Sudan rely almost entirely on the Nile for their water needs.

“One reason for the high level of anxiety is that nobody really knows how this dam is going to affect Egypt’s water share,” Richard Tutwiler, a specialist in water resource management at the American University in Cairo (AUC), tells IPS. “Egypt is totally dependent on the Nile. Without it, there is no Egypt.”

Egypt’s concerns appear warranted as its per capita water share is just 660 cubic metres, among the world’s lowest. The country’s population is forecast to double in the next 50 years, putting even further strain on scarce water resources.

But upstream African nations have their own growing populations to feed, and the thought of tapping the Nile for their agriculture or drinking water needs is all too tempting.

The desire for a more equitable distribution of Nile water rights resulted in the 2010 Entebbe Agreement, which replaces water quotas with a clause that permits all activities provided they do not “significantly” impact the water security of other Nile Basin states. Five upstream countries – Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda – signed the accord. Burundi signed a year later.

Egypt rejected the new treaty outright. But after decades of wielding its political clout to quash the water projects of its impoverished upstream neighbours, Cairo now finds itself in the uncomfortable position of watching its mastery over the Nile’s waters slip through its fingers.

“Ethiopia’s move was unprecedented. Never before has an upstream state unilaterally built a dam without downstream approval,” Ayman Shabaana of the Cairo-based Institute for Africa Studies had told IPS last June. “If other upstream countries follow suit, Egypt will have a serious water emergency on its hands.”

Ethiopia has sought to assure its downstream neighbours that the Grand Renaissance Dam is a hydroelectric project, not an irrigation scheme. But the dam is part of a broader scheme that would see at least three more dams on the Nile.

Cairo has dubbed the proposal “provocative”.

Egypt has appealed to international bodies to force Ethiopia to halt construction of the dam until its downstream impact can be determined. And while officials here hope for a diplomatic solution to diffuse the crisis, security sources say Egypt’s military leadership is prepared to use force to protect its stake in the river.

Former president Hosni Mubarak floated plans for an air strike on any dam that Ethiopia built on the Nile, and in 2010 established an airbase in southeastern Sudan as a staging point for just such an operation, according to leaked emails from the global intelligence company Stratfor posted on Wikileaks.

Egypt’s position was weakened in 2012 when Sudan, its traditional ally on Nile water issues, rescinded its opposition to the Grand Renaissance Dam and instead threw its weight behind the project. Analysts attribute Khartoum’s change of heart to the country’s revised domestic priorities following the secession of South Sudan a year earlier.

According to AUC’s Tutwiler, once Sudan felt assured that the dam would have minimal impact on its water allotment, the mega-project’s other benefits became clear. The dam is expected to improve flood control, expand downstream irrigation capacity and, crucially, allow Ethiopia to export surplus electricity to power-hungry Sudan via a cross-border link.

Some studies indicate that properly managed hydroelectric dams in Ethiopia could mitigate damaging floods and increase Egypt’s overall water share. Storing water in the cooler climes of Ethiopia would ensure far less water is lost to evaporation than in the desert behind the Aswan High Dam.

Egypt, however, is particularly concerned about the loss of water share during the five to ten years it will take to fill the dam’s reservoir. Tutwiler says it is unlikely that Ethiopia will severely choke or stop the flow of water.

“Ethiopia needs the electricity…and hydroelectric dams don’t work unless you let the water through.” More


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Ceres Report on Stresses on Groundwater Caused by Fracing

Ceres, a nonprofit focusing on climate change, water scarcity and sustainability, has issued a report, Hydraulic Fracturing & Water Stress: Water Demand by the Numbers, a Shareholder, Lender & Operator Guide to Water Sourcing. Here are some excerpts:



Saturday, March 8, 2014

‘China a concern for South and Central Asia’s water security’

New Delhi: With China building a “cascade of dams” in the upper reaches of rivers that flow into Central and South Asia and drawing large amounts of water to sustain its economy and people, there is a need to engage the Asian giant at bilateral and multilateral fora on the issue of water that is fast becoming a scarce and contentious commodity, said diplomats and experts here.

Himalayas - Source of S. Asia's water

Addressing a round table on “Regional Water Security and Riverine Disputes: Issues Common to Central and South Asia” here Thursday, speakers, including ambassadors from Central Asian countries and other domain experts, also said that there is a need for Track II dialogue between civil society activists of countries and for transparency in sharing of hydro information in order to resolve the issues concerning sharing of water.

Leading strategic expert Brahma Chellaney said Central and South Asia share common water security issues. He said China is “happily placed” as it is home to the largest number of trans-border rivers, which all originate from the Tibetan Plateau and the Xinjiang region. Chellaney said China’s “annexation” of Tibetan Plateau and Xinjiang “changed the water discourse” for the people of South and Central Asia.

Chellaney, who is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research, said China “is an issue of concern in South Asia and Central Asia… China is building a cascade of dams just before the rivers flow out of its territory.”

Ajay Bisaria, joint secretary in the Eurasia division of the external affairs ministry, said that India stands to benefit from the Central Asia South Asia Electricity Transmission and Trade Project, better known as CASA-1000, a new electricity transmission system to connect the countries of hydropower producing countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ashok Sajjanhar, former ambassador to Kazakhstan, said the Aral Sea from being a lake of plenty with fish, birds and wildlife, has turned into an “ecological disaster” with very high salinity and water level shrunk massively. The Aral Sea is a lake lying between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Sajjanhar said the issue of water distribution and water management between countries sharing water bodies is very crucial.

Rajiv Dogra, former ambassador, said the Central Asian water bodies were once clear blue and pristine, but have shrunk due to overuse.

“A drop of water is a grain of gold”, is the value placed on water in Turkmenistan, said the country’s Ambassador Parakhat Hommadovich Durdyev at the seminar held at the India International Centre and organised by the think tank Society for Policy Studies in collaboration with Asia News Agency.

William Young, Lead Resource, South Asian Water Initiative, World Bank, said the Ganga plains is inhabited by 600 million people, which shows the dependency on the river. He said the World Bank was looking to establish dialogues for the Ganga and Brahmaputra basin river countries.

Sanjoy Hazarika, director of Centre for North East Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, said the run of river dams that China was building on the Brahmaputra removes the fertile silt from the river water when it is released downstream into India, thereby harming agriculture and leading to climate change.

Hazarika also slammed the idea of interlinking of rivers being proposed in India, terming it a disastrous idea. More


Thursday, March 6, 2014

China is so bad at conservation that it had to launch the most impressive water-pipeline project ever

BEIJING—On a Saturday morning in late August, about a dozen university students, professors, and middle-aged Beijing locals stand by a row of apartments in northwestern Beijing. Once an outskirt of the city known for its natural springs and reed-filled ponds, the area now looks just like another part of the sprawling capital: wide roads lined with set-back buildings, crowded with pedestrians. It’s home to some of China’s best schools, Peking and Tsinghua universities. One member of the group—an environmental society called the Green Earth Volunteers, led by one of China’s most well-known environmentalists, Wang Yongchen—asks a local if he knows how to get to the Wanquan River.

“That’s a river?” the man asks, and offers directions to what he says is a nearby ditch that sometimes puddles. After a few minutes, the Green Earth Volunteers arrive at a narrow canal holding a few centimeters of water. The bed of the Wanquan, which means “ten thousand springs,” is now paved over with concrete, the result of attempts to keep water from soaking into the ground when the canal was full. A pipe, once used to carry water into the small river, lies exposed to the sun, as do patches of dry ground. Ivy creeps along the sides of the canal, as if trying to reach what’s left of the water.

The Wanquan is one of thousands of rivers in China that have dried and disappeared after decades of declining rainfall, prolonged droughts, exploding population growth, industrial expansion, and a series of disastrous reservoirs built during the early days of the Communist Republic. The problem is most obvious in Beijing, which was chosen to be China’s capital in part because of its abundance of streams and freshwater springs. Beijing consumed 3.6 billion cubic meters (127 billion cubic feet or 950 billion gallons) of water in 2012, far more than the 2.1 billion cubic meters per year the city has at its disposal in nearby rivers and in the ground. The city’s water resources, about 120 cubic meters per person a year, are well below the 500 cubic meters the UN deems a situation of “absolute water scarcity.” Beijing has been supplementing the shortfall by diverting water from the nearby province of Hebei and trying to lower water usage in the city.

China’s water crisis

China has a severe water problem overall. Its resources of freshwater, around2,000 cubic meters per capita, are one-third of the global average. Coal production, which supplies about three-quarters of China’s energy, already accounts forone-sixth (pdf, p. 3) of total water withdrawals. Between now and 2040 China’s total energy demand is expected to more than double, and be twice that of the US(slide 26). The World Bank has put the annual cost of China’s water problems—specifically, water scarcity and the direct impacts of water pollution—at 2.3% of GDP (pdf, p. xxi) but says it is likely much higher. About 45% of the country’s GDPcomes from water-scarce provinces, according to a 2012 report by HSBC and China Water Risk, a consultancy. About 300 million people in China, almost a quarter of its population, drink contaminated water every day. Former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao wasn’t being dramatic in 1999 when he called the country’s water problems a threat to the “survival of the Chinese nation.”

But these shortages are unevenly spread. The North Plain, a region home to a quarter of the population, and which includes Beijing, is especially dry. Here, water tables are falling by two to three meters a year (pdf, p. 194), according to the UN, and posing serious risks to agriculture and food security. Of China’s 22 provinces, 11 were considered “water-stressed,” meaning they have less than 1,000 cubic meters of water per person a year as of 2012. One of the north’s main water sources, the Yellow River, has been shrinking for the past three decades, drying up almost every year before reaching the the sea. Hebei province, which neighbors Beijing, has seen 969 of its 1,052 lakes dry up; some of its farmers water their crops with sewage water. Wang Shucheng, a former minister of water resources, predicted that if groundwater extraction in the north continues at current rates, in 15 years there will be none left.

The solution, as Mao Zedong first said in 1952, is to “borrow a little water from the south.” Southern China is home to four-fifths of the country’s water sources, mostly around the Yangtze River Basin. It took another 50 years after Mao’s suggestion for China to start work on it. Finally, on Dec. 10, the first phase of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project (SNWDP) or Nanshuibeidiao, began operating.

The project’s eventual goal is to move 44.8 billion cubic meters of water across the country every year, more than there is in the River Thames. The infrastructure includes some of the longest canals in the world; pipelines that weave underneath riverbeds; a giant aqueduct; and pumping stations powerful enough to fill Olympic-sized pools in minutes. It is the world’s largest water-transfer project, unprecedented both in the volume of water to be transferred and the distance to be traveled—a total of 4,350 km (2,700 miles), about the distance between the two coasts of America. The US, Israel, and South Africa are home to long-distance water transfer systems, but none on this scale.

It’s the kind of operation, observers of China say, that would never have a chance somewhere like America. The project requires the coordination of at least 15 provinces—several of them water-rich areas that will have to give up some of their own water. It involves building over hundreds of archeological sites and eventually through religious ones as well. Almost half a million people will have to be relocated. The cost is budgeted at some $60 billion and is likely to exceed that considerably. In the US, proposals for large-scale water transfers from the Great Lakes to the west or south of the country have been repeatedly put down. It would seem to be an example of the power of an autocratic central government to enact the kinds of far-reaching national transformations that, in a democracy, get bogged down.

But a closer look reveals that it’s far from certain whether the benefits will outweigh costs: Some describe the project as a “high-risk gamble.” And rather than showing off the power of China’s central government, in many ways the project merely highlights the limitations of the central government’s ability to manage China’s water needs.

Three horizontals, four verticals

The project creates a grid of water highways that criss-cross the country and can be adjusted to send water almost anywhere. That grid—the siheng sanzong, literally the “four horizontals, three verticals”—consists of the Yangtze, Yellow, Huai, and Hai Rivers running west to east, and three routes that run from south to north, each longer than 1,500 kilometers (600 miles) through both natural and man-made canals.

The first branch, the eastern route, has just started transferring water from the Yangtze River in Jiangsu province to the dry cities in Shandong province. A second route will start carrying water from central China to Beijing and other northern cities at some point in 2014. The third, western route may link the Yangtze River to the Yellow River by crossing through the mountainous terrain of Sichuan and Qinghai, at elevation of between 3,000 and 5,000 meters.

Borrowing water from the south isn’t as simple as Mao suggested. The government has so far relocated at least 345,000 people to make way for construction, the largest resettlement for an infrastructure project since at least 1.4 million people were moved for the Three Gorges Dam. Officials say their relocation is a sacrifice for the good of the country, but others argue that the government is overlooking the extent and impact of the forced relocations that are taking place. The diversion project also risks long-term damage to two of China’s most important rivers, along with the communities that depend on them.

Less water upstream, and more pollution

About 1,400 kilometers south of Beijing and its dried-up Wanquan River is the ancient town of Xiangyang, best known as the setting for epic battles over control of southern China over 700 years ago. Today, stretches of newly paved highways dotted with half-built high-rise apartment buildings lead to the city of 5 million. Locals brag that their strip of the Han River has some of the best water in the country. Of China’s six levels of water quality, theirs is of the second highest level, crisp and clean enough for drinking—a rarity in a country where as many as 20% of rivers are so polluted they’re unsafe to even touch. Over the summer, traffic near the river shore jams around 6pm as people stream to the water for a quick bathe before dinner.

That may change once the central route of the water transfer system opens next year. About 30% of the Danjiangkou Reservoir will then go north instead of flowing south toward Xiangyang and into the Yangtze River—the river that supplies water to the diversion project’s eastern route, and eventually the western one as well. Officials say any impact will be minimal, but local environmentalists and researchers dispute that. Worse, some say, is that diverting this much water may permanently hurt two of China’s most important rivers: the Han, the main source of water for about 30 million people, and the Yangtze, which runs through 11 provinces and supports up to 400 million people.

“We’ve resolved a lot of issues and done a lot of research. The negative impacts are so small they almost don’t exist,” says Shen Fengsheng, head engineer of the water project, sitting at a broad wooden table at the SNWDP’s project office in Beijing. When all three routes are completed, he says, the Yangtze will lose only about 5% of the 29,400 cubic meters of water it dumps into the ocean every second.

Local governments are building passageways for fish whose routes are disrupted by the canals, supplementary dams to ensure consistent water flow, and wastewater treatment plants to reduce pollution in water transferred or affected by the central or eastern routes. Officials in charge of managing the diversion from Danjiangkou say they’re making sure a minimum amount of water still flows downstream to cities like Xiangyang. ”The water volume overall will be lower, but it will be enough to meet the daily needs of the people,” Zhou Jinhua, general office director at Danjiangkou SNWDP Water Resources Company, in charge of the dam for the Danjiangkou Reservoir, told Quartz.

Locals in Xiangyang, however, say their water will become not only more sparse but also more polluted. Water quality there will fall at least one level when the route begins, according to Yun Jianli, head of Green Hanjiang, a nonprofit environmental group based in Xiangyang. That’s because decreasing water volume weakens a river’s “environmental capacity”—its ability to clear out pollution. Provincial researchers say the quality will go down another level, to the fourth of six, once the central route is at full capacity.

A slower-flowing river is also slower at depositing the sediments along the riverbed needed to form wetlands, which help mitigate pollution and nurture the river’s ecosystem. According to estimates by the Xiangyang municipal government, average water levels in the city’s section of the Han River will fall between0.51 meters and 0.82 meters (pdf) once diversion begins. “That water quality level will be worse is a foregone conclusion. The situation for the water environment is grim,” says a provincial report on the impact of the project on the Han River near Xiangyang, which was seen by Quartz.

“You haven’t even fixed the old problem, and you’ve already created new problems.”

In part to prepare for the diversion, Xiangyang is transforming itself. Plots of land covered in brick and concrete rubble litter the city as officials tear down paper and chemical factories. These have long been a large part of Xiangyang’s economy; now local officials want to move the economy away from manufacturing to minimize pollution in the Han River, and build up a services sector based on things like tourism. But as part of doing so, they plan to expand the city to three or four times its current size. Given that city dwellers consume about three times as much water as rural residents, according to International Rivers, a US-based environmental group, a bigger Xiangyang will probably guzzle much more water.

To make things worse, both the Han and the Yangtze will end up with less water than even the diversion plan allowed for. The amount of water to be diverted for the central route, for instance, is based on calculations of the Han River’s water flow between the 1950s and the early 1990s. But since then the Han has become less consistent as rising temperatures have made droughts in the south more common. The amount to be diverted, however, hasn’t been adjusted. “It begs the question of why the Chinese government is going to spend all this money to alleviate drinking water shortages in Beijing. Are they more important?” says Kristen McDonald, China program director for Pacific Environment, a California-based nonprofit.

Water levels in the Yangtze have been falling too. In 2012, Chinese researchers found that the amount of water entering the Yangtze from glaciers on the Tibetan plateau had fallen 15% over the last four decades. And in 2009, total freshwater reserves in the Yangtze River Basin had fallen 17% (pdf, p. 726) from 2005 levels, according to the China Statistical Yearbook. So cutting 5% from the river’s annual runoff is not trivial. Parts of the Yangtze will see much lower flow during the dry months of the year, affecting navigation and the health of the river. Officials say shipping along the Yangtze, which has become something of a “second coastline” for China, won’t be affected—but even now, local governments dig at least once a year to make the riverbed deeper to give ships more room.

A lower water volume could also mean more saltwater from the sea filters into the Yangtze’s estuary. That will impose higher costs on factories along the shore to treat and use salt water. Polluted water in the Yangtze—which officials have called “cancerous”—may also be transferred northward, bringing with it diseases like schistosomiasis (bilharzia), which can damage internal organs and harm children’s brain development. The solutions include installing costly wastewater management systems and, according to officials in Shandong, simply cutting off the flow of dozens of streams that carry factory wastewater into two lakes that function as transfer points for the diverted water. “The project will be useless if these problems aren’t solved,” Chinese environmentalist Yang Yong told Quartz. ”You haven’t even solved the old problem and you’ve already created new problems.”

Water diversion begets more water diversion

Perhaps the most alarming example of how the SNWDP creates new problems is that it has triggered a cascade of unforeseen extra engineering projects. This is because provincial officials, worried that their towns will lose water, are pushing for supplementary dams and water-transfer systems to protect them.

The rivers can ill afford this extra engineering burden. There are already almost 1,000 dams on the Han and its tributaries and hundreds of dams and other hydro-projects on the Yangtze. With China’s goal of tripling hydropower generation, says Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, many Chinese rivers simply won’t be flowing in 10 years.

But the real problem is that this creates a circular web of hydro-projects that take water from one river to replenish another—robbing Peter to pay Paul.

For instance, about 17 km south of Xiangyang on the Han River is the Cuijiaying Dam. A metal security fence guards it, with a sign that warns trespassers of intruding on “an area important for the work of national development.” The dam will maintain water levels for the city but slow the river’s flow downstream. “Usually NGOs are against dams, but this one is good for the local community,” Yun says.

Another diversion route, separate from the SNWDP, is being built to transfer water from the Yangtze to the Han, to help cities downstream of the Danjiangkou Reservoir. In turn, Shaanxi province—a parched region from which the central route will also take water—is building a project to take water out of the Han, to supplement its Wei River and the 13 cities along it that have serious water shortages. Officials are considering another proposal to bring water from the Three Gorges Reservoir, on the Yangtze River, to the Danjiangkou Reservoir. The Yangtze already has 353 dams, making it the world’s second most engineered water basin, according to data from International Rivers. There are already 14 dams on the Han River, and another 18 on a main tributary, according to the group.

Officials say they can resolve any unforeseen environmental impacts after the system begins operating, in much the same way that problems caused by the Three Gorges Dam project are being addressed now. That’s not very comforting, given that the Three Gorges project has caused, in the words of China’s State Council, “urgent problems” including thousands of earthquakes and landslides and tens of thousands of extra people needing relocation. Earlier this month, China’s anti-graft body accused officials who helped run the dam project of corruption, including taking bribes and influencing the bidding process for projects.

Dong Wenhu, former head of the water resource department in Taizhou in Jiangsu province, near the beginning of the eastern route, tells Quartz, “Yes there are risks. But no, I’m not worried. Why? Because we can just build more.”

“We had no other choice”

For all the social and environmental costs, not even the project’s leaders pretend that it solves China’s water problem. “For now, the transfer project is just compensating an amount. It can’t completely fix the problem,” says Shen, the head engineer of the project. There is dissent even among officials. In February, China’s vice minister of housing and urban rural development, Qiu Baoxing, in a rare public criticism (link in Chinese), called the project “difficult to sustain” and unnecessary if cities would only conserve more.

The central route will supply 1.24 billion cubic meters of water a year to Beijing. That won’t cover the city’s annual shortfall of 1.5 billion cubic meters. As the city’s population expands, its water needs will also expand faster than the diversion project can keep up. Water demands in northern China overall—the river basins around the Hai, Yellow, and Huai rivers—will be beyond what the SNWDP can cover at full capacity. The Institute of Water and Hydroelectric Research estimates that total demand in northern China will reach 203 billion cubic meters (pdf, p.3) by 2050, of which the SNWDP will only supply a little over a fourth.

This does bring an economic benefit. By alleviating water shortages, the SNWDP is supposed to add between 0.12% to 0.3% to annual GDP growth and create up to 600,000 jobs, according to government brochures and a state research center. “If you look at other countries in comparable stages of development and water scarcity, virtually all of them have employed some form or another of water transfer. At one level, I can’t blame China’s economic planners for thinking this is an essential thing to do,” says Scott Moore, a research fellow at the Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Still, the SNWDP’s project’s costs are rising quickly. Construction material, labor and added expenses like installing dozens of wastewater treatment plants are pushing the total bill past the previously earmarked amount of 500 billion yuan (about $60 billion, according to exchange rates in 2002 when construction began).

That figure, for all three routes, was already almost twice as expensive as the Three Gorges Dam. And, Shen tells Quartz, “that number is meaningless now… In the future, it will be far more than 500 billion.” Costs for the now completed first phase have almost doubled to 300 billion yuan from the earlier budget of 124 billion yuan, according to Zhang Jiyao, in an interview (link in Chinese) with Southern Weekend in October.

These spiraling costs mean there’s a risk that the SNWDP could turn into China’s largest white elephant—an unused network of canals and structures across the country. Beijing residents currently pay 4 yuan ($0.66) per cubic meter of water. The diverted water could cost around 10 yuan a cubic meter for residents in Beijing, according to estimates. So far, water from the eastern route costs up to 2.24 yuan per cubic meter (link in Chinese) for cities, but the final price that residents pay will be higher, government academics say. Residents, factories and some cities may be unwilling to pay this price, says Jia Shaofeng, a government researcher in water-resource management at the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS).

If the SNWDP doesn’t pay back its own costs, that could be a catastrophe for government finances. About 45% of the project is financed by loans from banks. “There could be a great default,” says James Nickum, vice-president of the International Water Resources Association, who visited areas slated to be the grounds for the eastern and central route in the 1980s, when officials were still debating the project. “I’m not convinced the project is a good deal economically.”

“It shows both the strength of the center and its limitations”

So why do it? The SNWDP seems to be another example of China’s penchant for massive projects that show off the power of the party. Large water projects are an especial favorite of China’s engineer-dominated leadership. (Eight of the nine members of the previous Politburo’s standing committee were engineers, including former president, Hu Jintao, who was a water engineer.) “It’s an approach that comes from both a Maoist impulse to subjugate nature in the pursuit of economic development, as well as what you’d expect from a government made up of engineers,” says Peter Martin, an analyst of Chinese politics at APCO Worldwide.

But this massive display of power—some might say hubris—is also a sign of weakness. One reason why China’s water crisis is so dire is that the central government hasn’t been able to coordinate national efforts to conserve water. Local environmental bureaus are often weak. Companies fined for breaking pollution rules often ignore the fines or renegotiate them with local officials. Local officials have been loath to raise water prices, despite Beijing’s requests, because of the backlash they might face from residents, or their relationships with local businesses. “Beijing can only get localities to do a certain number of things,” says Kenneth Pomeranz, an environmental historian at the University of Chicago. Water conservation hasn’t traditionally been one of them. ”It shows both the strength of the center and its limitations.”

So, while China is pushing other forms of water conservation, from new provincial water usage quotas to initiatives to raise water prices as well as recycle rainwater, the SNWDP is China’s most ambitious effort perhaps because it is the most feasible. Formalized and promoted as a national initiative, the project requires officials to fall in line, at least to some extent. “We had other choices, but construction is easier. You pay. Companies build it,” says Jia, the researcher from CAS. By contrast, when it comes to things like conservation, “The upper leaders have their policy and the local officials have their countermeasures.”

You can see some of those countermeasures on display in Jining, a city in the coastal province of Shandong, where the eastern diversion route passes through. Pharmaceutical company Cathay Biotech is one of dozens of polluting factories that officials promised to move out of the city to clean up a local lake through which the diverted water will flow. A People’s Daily article on the factory in April said that it had closed and moved to a nearby development area in Jin Xiang.

Quartz visited Cathay’s original location in Jining in late August. The complex of buildings was along a row of car manufacturers and other factories. Plumes were wafting upwards from a smokestack. In a half-full parking lot, workers were unloading a truck and one of the workers said the factory was still operating. (The company declined to respond to emailed questions.)

Meanwhile, in Jin Xiang, the plot of land belonging to Cathay Biotech’s new factory was little more than a mound of dirt. Nearby plots of land were similarly empty. Near Cathay’s Jining factory is a small village where the residents say local industry has long polluted their water supply. They don’t expect the SNWDP to change that. One man says, “You can build, but it won’t solve the core problem.” More