At any point during Beijing’s morning rush-hour there are thousands of people at the Wukesong subway station in the city’s west, all jostling for a space on a train.
What the Wukesong commuters may not know is that a tunnel is being dug under them that will allow 300 million cubic meters of water to flow into the city this year for use during the Olympics.
“[The project] is challenging indeed. If anything happens, the ground will sink and the result cannot be imagined,” said Li Dawei, deputy director of the Beijing bureau of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project Construction Commission, which oversees the tunnel’s construction.
The 13 kilometer-long tunnel will transport water over 23 flyovers before it reaches Kunming Lake in the Summer Palace in northern Beijing. The tunnel is one of 24 that are being built beneath roads for water diversion from neighboring Hebei Province, Li said.
A convoluted path
The US$2.49 billion project also includes nine tunnels through mountains, 84 tunnels under riverbeds, 118 overpasses and hundreds of canals. The water will travel 300 km, from four reservoirs in Hebei through the tunnels before arriving in Beijing. The project is to be completed before the games start in August.
Hebei, which is already parched, is paying a price. Nine out of 10 farmers in the villages beside the reservoirs have left home and become migrant workers because they are no longer allowed to use the water for their fields, according to local newspaper reports.
The tunnel system connecting Beijing to Hebei is only a small part of the US$60 billion South-to-North Water Diversion Project, which will channel water from southern China to the arid north along three routes over the next 50 years.
The water diversion project will be one of the largest hydro-engineering projects on earth.
The Beijing-Hebei project lies on the central route, which will be extended further south after the games until it taps into the middle reaches of the Yangtze River in Hubei province in 2010.
About 14 billion cubic meters of water will then be diverted from the Dan-jiangkou Reservoir near Wuhan annually, with 1 billion cubic meters allotted to Beijing, said Wang Hao, a researcher at the Ministry of Water Resources.
The eastern route, currently under construction, will transport 3.9 billion cubic meters of water from the lower reaches of the Yangtze River in Jiangsu province north to Shandong province by 2010. The city of Tianjin will also be part of this network.
Meanwhile, the western route will cut across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau so that water is taken from the upper reaches of the Yangtze in Tibet and transported to the Yellow River in Inner Mongolia. However, work has been delayed because of protests from environmentalists in China and India.
The eastern and central routes alone will pass through seven provinces and require 300,000 people to be resettled.
“This issue of water is in the end an issue of politics,” said Xia Jun, a scientist at the Institute of Geological Sciences and Natural Resources Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “All the provinces along the routes have to follow [the] rules of the game strictly if the project is to function.”
Yang Yongde, an official at the Yangtze River Water Resources Commission, explained it in a more explicit way: “Water is a precious natural resource and these provinces are competing for it.
“For example, the lower reaches of the Yangtze River are often lacking in water because the many hydro-engineering projects at the upper and lower reaches don’t allow enough water to get through.”
Then there are the financial challenges of the diversion project, which are neatly summed up by Pan Jiazheng, a respected hydro engineer who is one of the project’s chief consultants.
“Who shall we sell the diverted water to? At what price? How can we get the money? Shall we pay back the bank loans and interest? How to manage, operate and maintain all these tunnels and facilities?” Pan asked. “These problems of money are even more complicated than the technical problems.”
The portion of the project to be completed before 2010 will cost US$18 billion, 30% of which is funded by the central government, 45% by state-owned banks and 25% by a special fund established for the project in 2004. That fund is financed by increases in the price of tap water nationwide.
After the diverted water is put into use this year, the price of tap water will go up even further to service loans for the project, officials and researchers said. The current price for households in Beijing is RMB3.7 (US$0.53) per cubic meter, with a sewage treatment fee included. The rate has been raised nine times since 1991.
The price is right
A report released by the Ministry of Water Resources last June suggests that tap water be sold at about RMB7 (US$1) per cubic meter this year. The new rate includes the cost of the diversion project plus a 1% premium.
Raising the price of water this year is not going to be easy. In February, the consumer price index was up by 8.7% year-on-year, its highest rate since 1996, and the government is struggling to rein in rising prices.
The onus is on Beijing to establish a pricing mechanism that encourages the use of the diverted water – if only to stop industry tapping the city’s groundwater resources. Despite government restrictions, Beijing’s water table has dropped 11 m since 1999. As a result, Beijing is sinking.
“The diverted water is much more expensive than local water. We have to push for the diverted water to become the first to be used,” said Wang, the Ministry of Water Resources researcher.
“The project has little meaning if people still use [groundwater] and save the diverted water as a backup.”
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