Springing a HK$24b surprise on city water users backfires
How best to deal with badly contaminated rivers? It's a question many local governments on the mainland are having to grapple with.
Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, has found a solution that not everyone agrees with: leave the river near the city as it is and get clean water from somewhere else.
The 20 billion yuan (HK$24.5 billion) water diversion plan, formulated behind closed doors for years, was only revealed to the public when it was about to be implemented, sparking widespread protests.
China News Service says that each year, two billion cubic metres of water will be pumped from Qiandao Lake - just shy of a ninth of its capacity - to Hangzhou, 150 kilometres away, through 271 kilometres of six-metre-wide pipe bored through mountains.
People are upset about the government's rationale for launching the massive project and because they were kept in the dark about it.
Located in the heart of the Yangtze River delta, which is criss-crossed with rivers, Hangzhou has been dubbed 'heaven on earth' for centuries thanks to its idyllic living conditions. However, Hangzhou and other delta cities have grown thirstier for outside water resources in the past decade, as their local water sources have become polluted by industrial discharges.
Zhejiang Satellite Television says that 80 per cent of Hangzhou's eight million residents rely on the Qiantang River for their drinking water, but it has been 'overly exploited'. Its water is ranked category IV or V - so poor that it is only supposed to be used for industrial, agricultural or gardening purposes. So the city wants to pipe potable water from Qiandao Lake, a reservoir built in the 1950s that mainland experts say is now the main source of clean water for the entire delta.
Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said that pollution from factories in small cities along the river was to blame for turning its water filthy and foul-smelling. Hangzhou has spent billions of yuan over the past few years trying to clean up the river, but weak law enforcement and supervision has seen rampant pollution overshadow short-term improvements.
Turning to Qiandao Lake for water is not a new idea. Public opposition was also widespread in 2004 in Hangzhou, when officials first raised the diversion proposal.
One of the highest-profile critics was former water resources minister Qian Zhengying , who said that Hangzhou's priority should be to clean up its local river.
The latest plan was not revealed until last month, when Hangzhou mayor Shao Zhanwei told a session of the city's people's congress that the diversion project was part of Hangzhou's development blueprint for 2011-2015.
Cheng Maohong, director of the people's congress standing committee in Jiande, a satellite city administered by Hangzhou that sits beside Qiandao Lake, was reported to be astonished by Shao's remarks and teamed up with more than 20 other deputies from Jiande to campaign against it.
They appealed to the authorities to consider various opinions and conduct scientific studies before making a decision.
Cheng said scientific evaluation was vital and he was worried the project would damage the lake's water.
Thousands of people signed their names on boards on streets opposing the project and many others have expressed their anger online.
Some asked Hangzhou's Water Affairs Bureau to release details of the proposal, but the bureau rejected their demands in a statement posted on its website on May 5, saying it was not appropriate to publish details as the authorities were still discussing the project.
A few days later, the bureau defended the project, saying it was needed in order to improve the quality of drinking water for tens of millions of people in northern Zhejiang. It also said it was needed to realise the goal of developing Hangzhou into an international tourism destination.
It said it would take a long time to clean the Qiantang River but that 'taking advantage' of the clean water from Qiandao Lake did not mean it did not intend to rehabilitate the Qiantang.
Ma said many other mainland cities also chose to get their water supplies from elsewhere as their first option when confronted by dirty rivers. However, the flaw with this strategy is that the number of sources of clean water is rapidly diminishing.