Impact of the South-North Water Transfer Project

13 Mar

“Southern water is plentiful, northern water scarce. If at all possible, borrowing some water would be good” is a quote by China Chairman Mao. China has the fifth largest water resource in the world amounting to about 2,897 billion m3 per year, however putting this into the wider context when compared to the population; water availability is limited and falls well below the world average when calculated per capita (M, Berittella et al. 2006. p2). The problem surrounding scarcity is further worsened when looking at the difference between regions. The introduction of the South-North Water Transfer Project in 2002 aimed to alleviate the problem of scarcity among certain areas. The Project is scheduled to finish in 2014, however it is important to establish what effects it has had from a social, economical and environmental point of view 12 years on. The aim of the project was to divert 44.8 billion cubic meters of water per year from the Yangtze River in Southern China to the Yellow River Basin in arid Northern China (S, Wong. 2007). The Chinese government invested $62 billion in an attempt to solve this crisis. When completed, the South-North Water Transfer Project will be a truly colossal waterworks, linking up China’s four main rivers—the Yangzi, Yellow, Huaihe and Haihe river (C. Freeman, 2011, p.3).

The project itself was well devised with work beginning in the Eastern Route. This was the easiest to construct as it built upon the existing irrigation and water transportation network of the Grand Canal. Water was diverted from the lower Yangtze River and was lifted 65m by pump stations to flow north and supply water for Tianjin (M, Berittella et al. 2006. p2). One of the major concerns regarding this was the environmental aspect. As the water begun the meandering journey from the north to the south, there was the risk of water pollution as it passed certain areas which are known to suffer from pollution in abundance, leading to a risk of the water being deemed undrinkable.  Therefore, it has resulted in the short term decision, until revised, that the water should only be used for agriculture and not for drinking as it is too polluted.

The obvious advantages that we would expect to see would be firstly to eradicate the problem in the north of severely degraded ecosystems which will in turn improve the quality and the amount of water in the north. The main concern and what stemmed the introduction of the project was to ensure that country’s capital could continue to grow and follow the success it has had over the last decade since China opened up their doors to the global economy. The problem arises because the amount of water needed to solve the issue in the north is extremely high and the investment needed for this to occur exceeds the budget given to this project.

Another problem that was created by the expansive project was the amount of people that were displaced from their homes. The project forced 180,000 people in Hubei and 160,000 in Henan to leave their homes around the reservoir. It is China’s second largest relocation program after the Three Gorges project, which involved the relocation of 1.27 million people over a period of 17 years (Xinhua, 2012). Considering the current situation in China relating to concerns over poverty and inequality, this part of the project has the ability to worsen development in the country. It could be the case that many of these people who have been forced to give up their homes will have to move back to their province of origin which many deem not to have a respectable quality of life, hence leads to greater problems surrounding poverty and inequality.

The possible positives of this illustrious project are the productivity gains in many provinces in the north as the extra availability of water resources will allow firms to expand on production comparable to what may have not been available prior to the introduction of the project. This increase in productivity gives China the opportunity to continue to experience GDP growth and be one of the great economic powerhouses.

 Another point to consider is that as water becomes more readily available it may cause a shift in production patterns as there may be more of an emphasis on water-intensive sectors, therefore it is important to determine the areas that China have a comparative advantage in to ensure they do not switch in producing more of a good that they are not specialists in. Agriculture alone uses two thirds of China’s water resources therefore is a key part of much of China’s production (B. Guerringue, 2013). The amount of investment in the project is twice as high as the Three Gorges Dam therefore it is imperative that it has huge amounts of success, however it is clear to see that this project will only have a major impact on the north of China and therefore has possibly led to putting the problems of other areas as a back burner whilst this project concludes. 



Source : B. Guerringue, 2013

From this diagram you can see that the South-North Water Transfer Project is deemed to have a positive impact on GDP and migration. However in practice, we may not see an increase in migration as provinces further north have greater access to water, it may allow their regions to develop and grow. This will lead to a disincentive for individuals to migrate to provinces in the south or by the coast that provide better opportunities and a higher standard of living. We can clearly see that the project was very costly; however the benefits it may bring to certain regions in China may be of benefit in the long run if the project is tweaked to ensure that long term solutions can be made to solve short term problems.


 Word Count: 976 




Freeman, C. (2011). Quenching the Dragon’s Thirst: The South-North Water Transfer Project-Old Plumbing for New China. China Environment Forumn. 1 (1), p3.

Guerringue, B. (2013). South-North Water Transfer Project. Available: Last accessed 8th March 2014.

Wong, S. (2007). China Bets on Massive Water Transfers to Solve Crisis. Available: Last accessed 8th March 2014.

Xinhua. (2012). China’s water diversion project carries risks. Available: Last accessed 8th March 2014.


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