Plan to rehydrate the west with seawater

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 November, 2010, 12:00am

Mainland hydraulic engineers have come up with an ambitious plan to rehydrate the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in the northwest: transfer seawater from the Bohai Sea in the northeast.

The idea is to fill the region's dried-up salt lakes and the basins of its vast deserts with seawater, Xinhua reported, in the hope that as it evaporates it will create moisture.

But getting the water to the mountainous region will not be easy. It will have to travel to an altitude of more than 1,200 metres as it passes four mountain ranges.

The proposal was put to a government-backed meeting in the regional capital Urumqi on Friday.

It suggests raw seawater be transported via a glass-reinforced plastic (GRP) pipeline from the Bohai Sea near Tianjin. It would be pumped to 1,280 metres above sea level to southeastern Inner Mongolia. From there it would flow at 42 degrees north latitude, through four mountain ranges and a lake to arrive in Xinjiang.

But environmentalists say the plan is too costly and impractical.

Professor Xia Qing, an environmentalist who has been involved in the South-North Water Diversion Project, said the plan was unfeasible both technically and financially.

The cost of sending one tonne of water by GRP pipeline from the Bohai Sea to Xinjiang would be eight yuan (HK$9.30), Yang Kailin, director of the Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research, was quoted by iyaxin.com as saying.

But Xia said the amount would be at least double that if treatment for pollution and maintenance costs were factored in. 'It would not be worthwhile unless the transferred water was used for advanced functions such as drinking,' Xia said.

Zou Ji, an environmental economist at Renmin University, said further study was needed into three areas of the proposal: whether the seawater could be retained in the dried-up lakes; how much energy it would consume; and whether the Bohai Sea water quality was good enough for the purpose.

'To relieve the dryness in Xinjiang this way would involve millions of tonnes of water. To consistently bring this water over is a huge project given the basic facts of China's terrain - high in the west and low in the east,' he said.

'Plus, pollution in the Bohai Sea, as far as I know, is quite serious. Whether it's safe to transfer water of this quality is another question.'

Most of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia is taken up by eight deserts, making the regions extremely dry.

Zeng Heng, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, was quoted by Xinhua as saying that China loses over six billion yuan each year because of desertification. He said the scheme could fundamentally change the environment of the northwest.

Xia said Inner Mongolia had also proposed a plan - which has been approved by the State Council - to use Bohai Sea water for industrial production.

He said the Inner Mongolia scheme was far more feasible because the distance involved was shorter and a chlor-alkali chemical base had been built to desalinate the transferred water. 'Xinjiang is a totally different case. It's further away and desalinating is a big problem.'

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