China: Massive projects supply cities with water

Chine : des Mégaprojets ruraux pour approvisionner les villes
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China's large-scale dams have had enormous impact on the environment and people, creating polemics within and outside the country. Massive water projects show how the Chinese government and provinces manage natural resource distribution, by imposing central planning for regional development and recognizing the importance of cities.

Two massive Chinese water projects - the Three Gorges Dam and the South-North Water Transfer Project - and the debates they sparked within China's ruling political classes illustrate how cities negotiate with surrounding territories to secure resources and facilities essential for their development.

The long history of the Three Gorges Dam starts in 1919, when Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Republic of China, conceived a dam project sited in the Qutang, Wu and Xiling gorges. The project was debated and studied all through the 20th century, advancing or not as political momentum, construction capabilities, international cooperation and the floodwaters of the Yangtze River ebbed and flowed. Construction of the world's largest hydropower dam finally started in 1994 and finished in 2005, when 40 billion square metres of fresh water began to fill its reservoir.

The dam's construction had three primary objectives: flood control,

The Three Gorges Dam is designed to protect the middle and lower Yangtze River from hundred-year floods. Experts claim the 1998 flood that devastated nearly 200 million Chinese could have been avoided if the dam was in place (Sanjuan 2001).

electricity production

Twenty-six 700-megawatt turbines are planned, for an installed capacity of 18,200 megawatts and an annual average yield of 84.7 terrawatt hours, enough to supply about 5% of China's 2009 electricity consumption (Hao 2003).

and increasing navigation capacity between Shanghai and Chongqing. These goals positioned the Yangtze River as the spearhead of development in Central China. Part of this strategy was the 1997 creation of the provincial-level Chongqing Municipality at the upper reaches of the dam's reservoir: its special status put it directly under administrative control of China's central government. The Chongqing Municipality, as the sole provincial municipality in western China, and the Three Gorges Dam are central to the development of China's interior and the Chinese government's plan for the territory. Their creation appears as the result of inter-regional negotiations, in which the four provincial Chinese municipalities - Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Chongqing - play leading roles.

The Three Gorges Dam project encountered strong opposition both inside and outside China. On 3 April 1992, the Chinese National Assembly approved the Three Gorges Dam project with 1767 yea votes; there were, however, 177 nay votes and 689 abstentions. Such strong opposition to a government project was exceptional. Numerous international non-governmental organizations and Chinese scientists also opposed the project, and the World Bank and the American Import-Export Bank pulled out of planned financing. Their concerns were legitimate, since so large a project is full of uncertainties, risks and negative environmental and social impacts. For instance, when 632 square kilometres behind the dam were flooded, one to two million people lost their homes; they have yet to receive promised indemnification. The Three Gorges region was one of the cradles of Chinese civilization (Shen 2000); the Yangtze River now covers vestiges of 5,000 years of history. The dam's construction created many environmental threats, including: erosion around the dam site, erosion of the river's delta, increased salinity of groundwater and land at its mouth, a reduction in biodiversity, and degradation of water quality.

The 632 km² of land flooded by the reservoir included: 1,300 factories and mining complexes, 1,500 slaughterhouses, nearly 300,000 m² of public latrines, 178 garbage dumps, 40,000 cemeteries, several hospitals, and nearly three million tonnes of waste of all kinds, all sources of multiple pollutants (Savoie 2009).

Furthermore, the aims of hydroelectric production and flood control could be achieved by lower-cost and lower-risk means. That left one chief motivation: to develop China's interior using the Yangtze River's East-West axis and to structure it around the dam.

Opposition also arose from the proposed reallocation of resources within China. The dam project aimed to resolve the chronic lack of water in Northern China, in particular around the region of Beijing. In fact, the height of the Three Gorges Dam (at 185 metres a long-debated issue among scientists and the authorities) reveals a hidden reason for its construction that has since come into the open: to facilitate the South-North Water Transfer Project (Figure 1) (Bravard 2001). Another huge government initiative, this project proposes to divert up to 45 cubic kilometres of water from the Yangtze River watershed to Northern China, Beijing and the northern port city of Tianjin. The costs are projected to reach about $60 billion (Shao 2003), far exceeding the cost of the Three Gorges Dam. This initiative, too, is thought to carry many social and environmental risks. The water diversion project has received less media attention that did the Three Gorges Dam because of internal politics in China: it goes to the heart of the regional balance of power.

Construction of the North-South Water Transfer Project was officially launched in 2002 by China's State Council, and comprises three primary routes. The Central route will provide water to Beijing through a gravity-fed 1230-kilometre canal that will pass under the Yellow River through a nearly 7-kilometre long tunnel (Berkoff 2003). The Central canal helps explain the debate about the height of the Three Gorges Dam: the 185 metres agreed to in the final project negotiations (Sanjuan 2001) is high enough to facilitate the transfer of water by gravity (Bravard 2001).

The Three Gorges Dam thus appears as a key element in this water transfer project. The water diversion aims to provide more water to the drier northern part of China by transferring large flows from the Yangtze River watershed to the Yellow River and Beijing, and beyond to the rest of Northern China, where increasing scarcity impedes development. The opposition votes at the Chinese National Assembly therefore understandably reflect regional rivalries, particularly between Beijing and Shanghai. Shanghai is the economic capital of China and must contribute a large share of financing to the projects. Unlike the development of a navigable route along the Yangtze River, which will benefit the development of Chongqing and the Port of Shanghai at the river's mouth, the North-South Water Transfer Project will benefit the northern cities of Beijing and Tianjin, while costing even more than the Three Gorges Dam.

Beyond serving as points of negotiation between major Chinese cities, such projects also ensure the legitimacy of the Chinese Central Government. They reinforce its position as the master of structuring China's territory, working to maintain the country's unity and national solidarity, to distribute economic development across the country, and to maintain a balance between Beijing and Shanghai. The government in Beijing also wants to show how strongly it holds the reins of the country through such symbolic projects.

China is a specific, concrete case that exemplifies how a city must negotiate for resources with its surrounding hinterlands. The speed of economic development, vast inequalities in resources and the size of the cities in China ensure that a city's negotiations go beyond its near hinterlands to encompass far more territory. One city's requirements confront the needs of other cities, and a balance between them must be achieved - a balance of power in which the Chinese Government finds its central place.


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