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GCSE Geography | Case Study: China’s South–North Water Transfer Project (Resource Management - Water 6)

AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas

Last updated 20 May 2024

The South-North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP) is a large-scale scheme in China that moves huge quantities of water from the humid south of the country to the arid north. This region has experienced rapid population growth, and is home to 200 million people, including the megacities of Beijing and Tianjin. The region has also seen significant economic development, meaning there is a demand for irrigation for farming and water for thirsty manufacturing industries. This area was previously reliant on groundwater supplies, however the water table below Beijing has dropped significantly because of over-abstraction (by 5 metres each year!), and any new wells have to be dug at least a kilometre deep to access water. So the SNWTP was introduced to address the issue of water demand and availability.

The scheme

The project was first considered in the 1950s - and construction began in 2003 with the aim of moving 12 trillion gallons of water each year over 1000 km from the Yangtze River basin in the south, to the Yellow River basin in the north, using three different routes...

Route 1 - Eastern route (completed in 2013)

This first phase provides water to the cities of Tianjin (15.6 million people) and Weihai (2.8 million people), for domestic and industrial uses. This route makes use of existing rivers, lakes and canals, however, these were all heavily polluted by agricultural run-off and industrial waste, so needed significant cleaning up. It is vital now that farmers and local industries keep these waterways clean, otherwise the project will just be transferring contaminated water from one place to another, which will harm human health, and affect fishing industries in the region.

Route 2 - Central route (completed in 2014)

This second phase provides water to 20 cities in the north of China, including the capital city of Beijing, which has a population of 21.5 million people. This route has a huge reservoir at Danjiangkou (see image below), which provides a good supply of water, however, it did mean that 300,000 people were displaced as the valley was flooded.

There are some issues though - farmers in the region are not benefitting from either of these transfer routes, local ecosystems have been disturbed by the changing patterns of drainage and flows of water, and the use of open channels means that a lot of water is lost through evaporation.

Route 3 - Western route (currently on hold)

This final phase involves building several dams in the Upper Yangtze basin, along with hundreds of kilometres of tunnels through the Bayankala Mountains, that will divert about 200 cubic kms of water each year from some major rivers that flow through southern China, including the Mekong and the Bramaputra. Both of these rivers are transboundary, meaning that diverting water from them could affect the countries downstream - Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Laos for the Mekong (which are already impacted by existing dams upstream in China), and India and Bangladesh for the Bramaputra.

At the moment this phase is on hold as the construction and environmental costs are deemed too high, and there is also the issue that the route crosses an area that experiencing earthquakes frequently.

The future?

Since the 1960s the south of China has seen more and more drought events, meaning that the water surplus is not as significant as it once was, therefore there are concerned that the SNWTP won't actually be able to supply all the water needed to the arid north.

The project has also be plagued by controversies:

  • Some of the people displaced claim to have been forced to sign relocation agreements
  • Fish farmers on the Dongping Lake have complained that water transferred from the polluted Yangtze River has killed their fish
  • Scientists are concerned that the project will increase water evaporation losses

And of course there is the cost to consider - the SNWTP is the world's most expensive water transfer scheme, costing US$79 billion so far (mainly funded by Chinese tax payers) and many question whether the benefits are actually worth it. Both the rate of population growth and economic growth are slowing down so perhaps such a huge scheme is no longer needed, and smaller projects with less of an impact on the environment, may be more appropriate.

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