Disaster warning over plan to link rivers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 March, 2010, 12:00am

A proposal by Jiangxi and Guangdong officials for a canal to link the main rivers in each province has met with fierce opposition from academics and former officials who have described it as 'ridiculous' and a 'potential natural disaster'.

Officials from three Jiangxi government departments have confirmed that discussions are continuing on the Gan-Yue Canal proposal. The 1,237 kilometre canal would connect the Gan River in Jiangxi with the Pearl River in Guangdong, creating a new route for shipping and trade.

A Jiangxi Waterways Bureau official said that plans to link the two rivers had been floated three or four years ago, but nothing concrete had yet been planned.

'This project is going to be very eye-catching as it will transform regional economic development,' he said.

The Gan flows across Jiangxi from south to north, entering Poyang Lake near the provincial capital Nanchang before joining the Yangtze. Connecting the Pearl with the Gan could cut the distance ships cover between the Pearl and Yangtze deltas by more than 1,200 kilometres, avoiding the coasts of Fujian , Zhejiang and Shanghai.

Citing an unnamed Jiangxi source, Guangzhou Daily reported last week that the canal was proposed to begin from the Zhen River, a tributary of the Bei River which is itself a tributary of the Pearl. It would pass through a watershed and reach the Tao River, a tributary of the Gan. The daily said construction of the massive project could cost up to 10 billion yuan (HK$11.35 billion). Sixty-one per cent of the canal - 759 kilometres of it - would be in Jiangxi.

Jiangxi's Development and Reform Commission and its transport ministry are looking into the feasibility of the proposal, while the waterways bureaus of Jiangxi and Guangdong have been engaged in preliminary discussions.

Plans to build the Gan-Yue Canal are bound to spark controversy due to the massive scale of construction work involved, the sharing of scarce water resources and its negative environmental impact.

Professor Chen Xiaohong , who heads Sun Yat-sen University's department of water resources and environment, said the canal proposal was nothing more than a fantasy and vanity project that would waste public money and manpower.

'The Bei River is tiny and has already reached its maximum capacity to carry more ships,' he said. 'The economic benefit brought by the canal is negligible because it can't handle any more shipping.

'It's meaningless and unnecessary to dig a canal just for that. It will do more damage than good to the regional economy. Water resources and the ecological system around it will be under threat. It's just not worth it.'

However, it would not be the only such project to face heavy criticism.

Drinking water is scarce on the mainland, with many central and southwestern provinces often ravaged by severe droughts, leaving millions short of drinking water. In the past decade, colossal water diversion projects have been favoured by officials despite fierce criticism about wasted money, disrupted lifestyles and environmental destruction.

The South-North Water Diversion project to bring water from the wet south to the parched north is one of the most controversial. It has suffered multiple delays due to rising costs and technical difficulties and is now not scheduled for completion until 2014.

If the Gan-Yue Canal went ahead, warned Zhao Zhangyuan, who used to work at the Ministry of Environmental Protection's Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning, it would be a natural disaster for those who depended on the rivers.

'Digging the canal will reduce water levels no matter which direction the water is flowing,' Zhao said.

He said there were two possible scenarios, depending on which way the water flowed. One would see pollutants from the Pearl flow into the Gan and the other would see water levels in the Gan and Poyang Lake fall, threatening drinking water supplies for people living in Jiangxi.

'Over the years, the surface size of Poyang Lake has shrunk from about 4,000 square kilometres to about 50 square kilometres,' Zhao said.