A green pipe dream
Sustainable growth was one of the buzzwords at the recent annual meetings of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. Premier Wen Jiabao said the target growth rate for the economy would be lowered to 7 per cent for the next five years, and promised that the mainland would not 'blindly' pursue development that was unsustainable. Above all, he pledged that the environment would not be sacrificed for the sake of boosting industrial output.
The Communist Party has no use for irony, so Wen's words were greeted with the solemn applause that characterises NPC meetings. That is despite the fact that the delegates were sitting in the centre of Beijing, a metropolis that could be the poster boy for unsustainable growth. Overpopulated and with roads as clogged as a 60-a-day smoker's arteries, the capital is above all suffering from a drought that gets more serious by the year.
Step forward the South-North Water Diversion Project, the much-vaunted, long-awaited silver bullet that is supposed to cure Beijing's parched state. A relic of the Maoist era - it was Mao Zedong who in 1952 first suggested transferring water from the south of China to the arid north - the scheme called for three routes to funnel water north from the Yangtze River. But, almost 60 years on, none of the routes are close to completion, while the costs continue to rise inexorably.
Students of Chinese history will know that the mainland's leaders have long favoured super-expensive public works of dubious value. While the Three Gorges Dam is the most recent example, the Great Wall stands as a reminder of a ruinously expensive structure that completely failed to do its job.
But the South-North project is shaping up to be the biggest white elephant of them all. The western route, which calls for the Yangtze River to be diverted into the Yellow River via huge tunnels under the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, has already been postponed indefinitely due to the immense engineering difficulties involved. Both the central route and the eastern section are also behind schedule.
Worse still, the officials in charge of the eastern route have indicated that the cost of their part of the project is set to rise further, due to the need to spend more fixing the ever-increasing amount of pollution problems in the areas that line the route. That is despite the fact that 420 billion yuan (HK$498 billion) has already been earmarked for the entire scheme, more than double the amount spent on the Three Gorges Dam.
So contaminated are the waterways that are supposed to supply the eastern route that Tianjin's government is said to have refused to accept any water from them until more is done to clean them up. Mao could not have imagined that his grand idea would be derailed because economic growth on the mainland has been so fast and furious that its rivers and lakes have been left hopelessly polluted. Pollution is just one of the problems the engineers face. No one has satisfactorily explained how to prevent huge amounts of the water being transferred evaporating before it reaches the north. Then there are the unknown environmental consequences of rerouting the Yangtze and its tributaries.
And few of the hundreds of thousands of people who are being forcibly relocated in Henan and Hubei to make way for the water tunnels are happy to be sacrificing their homes and land.
Perhaps most embarrassing is that the ethos of the project conflicts so much with the party's new insistence that sustainable growth is the way forward. Everything about the plan, from the scale and cost to the potential environmental damage, is unsustainable, especially when a culture of water conservation in northern China might solve the water shortage. Beijing wastes water at an alarming rate - for every US$4 of economic output in the north, one cubic metre of water is required, which is three times the global average.
Yet, there is no way the South-North Project can be cancelled. For the current leaders to do so would be an unprecedented criticism of their predecessors who initiated the scheme. And with Beijing and other cities in the north anticipating that the project will solve their water shortages, local officials are not telling industry or individuals that they need to save water, so the misuse of this most valuable of resources continues.
China's trumpeting of sustainable growth makes for a nice sound bite, but, like the South-North Project, it will be years before it becomes reality.
David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist