In the 5th Century B.C., when the first bricks were laid for the Great Wall, China created a marvel of construction. But a new mega-project out of Beijing has environmentalists wondering if the essential “re-plumbing” of the country has taken Chinese hubris over the edge. The Los Angeles Times reports on the $62 billion South-North Water Diversion, an epic, multi-decade project designed to bring clean water to Beijing at the reported expense of the rest of the country.

Beijing, famously deficient in water and surrounded by polluted rivers, is in need of a sufficient water supply for its population of 17 million. As it the growth of the city is expected to double in the next forty years, officials are stepping up a program that realizes a vision by Mao Tse-tung in the 1950s. Expected to take decades to complete, the project is going to bring in water from the south and the west of the capital.

This has environmentalists extremely alarmed. Jonathan Watts is author of "When a Billion Chinese Jump," which looks at China's environment. As Watts told the Los Angeles Times, "The ability to control water in China has always been seen as one of the benchmarks of a leader who is able to manage the country. It goes back to the idea that the emperor is the go-between to protect the people from the heavens. The fact that they are still doing it shows their desperation." Engineers claim that the project is a “must-do” key to the survival of the nation, and that the country cannot afford not to complete it.

Others point out the hubris of a project that will shift the plumbing of a giant land. Officials are building a giant network of aqueducts, canals and tunnels which will snake thousands of miles across the country. The system will drain water from the flood-plagued valleys of the south as well as the snow-capped mountains to the east. Yang Sheya is an engineering supervisor working on the project. As he told the Los Angeles Times, "It is a little like building the tunnel under the English Channel to connect France and England — except we're moving water, not vehicles.”

Opponents point out that the government is robbing the rest of China to supply Beijing. The ecological effect of diverting all this water on wildlife and land will be immense. Others point out that the water they are diverting is too polluted for the project to be a success. In fact, much of the project bypasses existing rivers which are far too polluted to be used for drinking water.

Ultimately, the fate of China rests on its government, not its people. Yao Ziliang is an elderly man relocated from his village to accommodate the project. He thinks the project will be a success. As he told the Los Angeles Times, "Of course it will bring water to Beijing. The party would not lie to us."

For further reading:

China undertakes enormous project to transport clean water to Beijing
$62 billion North-South-Water Diversion is being compared to the Great Wall of China.