Construction will begin today on a massive project that will transport water from the Yangtze River to arid provinces in the north. The South-North Water Transfer project aims to transport 48 billion cubic metres of water a year to northern provinces. Today, at the Lixiahe section of the river near Yangzhou in Jiangsu province, workers will begin building a pumping station for the project's eastern route. Professor Gu Zhaoqi of Tsinghua University's Hydrology Engineering Department, who has worked on the project for more than two decades, said: 'This will be the beginning of China's greatest engineering and water project.' First proposed in 1952 by Mao Zedong, the project will take more than 50 years to complete and cost up to 500 billion yuan (HK$472 billion) - twice as expensive as the Three Gorges Dam. Unlike the dam, which has faced strong opposition, the South-North Water Transfer project has been widely supported by the nation's political and scientific community. The project was developed because the north is in dire need of water, which the south has in abundance. Most of the nation's 400 cities that face water shortages are in northern China. Beijing has per capita water resources of only 300 cubic metres, one-eighth of the national average and one-30th of the world's average. Tianjin is in its sixth consecutive year of drought and its per capita water resources are only one-15th of the national average. Shandong province's rainfall levels this year were 85 per cent lower than last year's, which has caused more than 10 billion yuan in damages. 'The project will involve some of the most difficult engineering in the world,' Professor Gu said. The eastern route's construction will involve building a 10km water tunnel under the Yellow River. The risk of pollution is also a major headache for the engineers. Last year, more than 2.2 billion tonnes of industrial and urban waste was poured into the Yangtze River. If the water is not clean, the project would be simply diverting sewage, experts said. To deal with this problem, officials plan to spend more than 50 billion yuan on 120 waste-water treatment plants along the project's waterways. The government will also shut down hundreds of highly polluting paper mills, mostly in Anhui, Shandong and Jiangsu provinces. Professor Liu Changming, a hydrology expert at the Chinese Academy of Science, said: 'These measures will solve the project's environmental problems.' To deal with the water shortage problem, officials and experts are also urging people to conserve water. During a visit to one of the project sites last February, Vice-Premier Wen Jiabao said it was critical to encourage water-saving. To encourage conservation and raise revenue, officials are increasing the price of water. Beijing will raise prices for its residents from two yuan per cubic metre to five yuan per cubic metre. Next year, workers will begin work on the middle route of the project, which will bring water from the Han River near Wuhan to Beijing; and the western route, which will divert water from Sichuan to tributaries of the Yellow River in Qinghai province.