China the Beautiful

South-to-North Water Transfer Project - China

Water Resources

Water scarcity, a matter of worldwide concern, is also plaguing China today. With 22 percent of the world's population, China has only 8 percent of the fresh water. Its per capita availability of fresh water is barely a quarter of the world average. Due to uneven rainfall in some areas in north China, the per capita water rate is as low as one fifth the national average (Liaohe River Valley in the northeast) or one sixth (Haihe River Valley around Tianjin). The problem has become a major economic bottleneck.

North China has been in the grip of chronic drought since ancient times. China is plagued with unevenly distributed water and land resources: more water and less land in the south and less water and more land in the north. The north accounts for 37 percent of the country's total population, 45 percent of cultivated land, but only 12 percent of the total water resources. Over 80 percent direct water runoff in China takes place in the south, where cultivated land accounts for just 40 percent of the total. Since the 1980s, the Haihe and Yellow river valleys have been stricken by chronic drought. Yet, further south, about 1,000 billion cubic meters of water from the Yangtze empties into the sea each year.

Sandra Postel: Thank you. What I would like to do is to lead off our discussion by sketching out what I see as some of the principal challenges that water scarcity is posing to us as we head toward the 21st century. I would just begin by saying that it is my belief that political leaders are vastly under-estimating the influence that water scarcity is going to have in three important areas, and I will touch briefly on each of those. One is food security, another is the health of the aquatic environments, and the third is social and political stability. I am sure many of us know that producing food is a highly water-intensive activity. About two-thirds of all the water that we take out of rivers, streams, lakes, and underground aquifers goes to agriculture. It takes about a thousand tons of water to grow one ton of grain. Over the next 30 years, it is projected that we will add another 2.6 billion people to the planet. I think that a key challenge is how we are going to find the water to grow the food needed to nourish those people, in a sustainable way. If you look at the average amount of water needed to grow food for an average diet today and project that out just for those additional 2.6 billion people, we're looking at the amount of water equal to 56 times the flow of the Colorado River.

By Sandra Postel

Yao and Shun (2400-2200 BC) Chinese historians generally regard the accession of Yao [King Langan] as the dawn of authentic history. The first official act of Yao was to give his people a more correct calendar than that which had previously existed. This system has been followed throughout all the succeeding ages. Every one had access to his court either to offer a suggestion or to make a criticism. No important appointment was ever made without the advice and consent of the chiefs of the feudal lords; and, as the result, his administration was a great success. The prosperity of the nation was, however, temporarily disturbed by a thirteen-year flood which began in the sixty-first year of Yao's reign. It was a terrible disaster, and Yao was greatly grieved by the sufferings of his people. With some hesitation, the great task of reducing the waters was assigned to Gun, who failed, and for this failure and other crimes, was put to death by Shun, Yao's son-in-law and co-ruler. Strange as it may seem, Yu, son of Gun, was recommended to the throne by Shun. It took Yu eight years to finish the work. Instead of building high embankments as his father had done, he deepened the beds of existing rivers and cut as many channels as were necessary to carry the water off to the sea. By his great engineering success, he soon became the idol of the nation. "We would have been fish but for Yu" is a saying which has come down to us from those days.

Outlines of Early Chinese History by Li Ung Bing

On Dec. 27, 2002, China started its gigantic south-to-north water division project, which is expected to take 50 years to complete and cost 59 billion US dollars.

The project involves three canals running 1,300 kilometers across the eastern, middle and western parts of China, linking the country's four major rivers -- the Yangtze, Yellow, Huaihe and Haihe.