Desalination would be cheaper than ambitious plan, experts say

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 May, 2009, 12:00am

The controversial project to divert water from the Yangtze River to drought-stricken Beijing could be replaced by much cheaper desalination technology, critics of the ambitious scheme say.

An expert with the Ministry of Water Resources told the China Business Journal that while improved technology had reduced the cost of desalination to less than 5 yuan (HK$5.65) per cubic metre, the cost of the diversion project had risen several-fold to 18 yuan per cubic metre.

To cover the costs of the diversion project, Beijing authorities have planned to significantly raise the city's water tariff, which stands at 3.7 yuan per cubic metre. The exact amount has yet to be decided.

Some experts say the advance of desalination technology could offer an alternative to expensive diversion schemes, while others are doubtful and say neither is a lasting solution to the mainland's water crisis.

'Desalination may provide a temporary way out, but we should not forget that its cost and environmental impact may have been underestimated, because it consumes a lot of energy as well,' Tao Jianhua, a water engineering expert from Tianjin University, said.

She said authorities had yet to give up their obsession with grandiose projects, which were usually hugely expensive and eventually ended up as white elephants.

'Everyone seems to agree about the positive impact of the South-North diversion project, but what about its huge impact on displaced people and the environment? What if the Yangtze River, which is facing a water shortage of its own and pollution problems, cannot afford to have so much fresh water transferred? ' Professor Tao asked.

Qiu Weiduo, a water conservation expert, also expressed concern over the future of the project.

He cited a project to divert water from the Yellow River to help ease shortages in Qingdao in the late 1980s, which pushed up water tariffs. 'What if people in Beijing and Tianjin are not willing to use the water from the project because of high tariffs? That would be a disaster,' he said.

A study by the Ministry of Construction found the amount of water lost through leaking pipes on the mainland was greater than the quantity that would be pumped through the diversion project each year.

Experts said authorities should focus more on raising awareness of conservation, and increase investment in water-saving technology.