In May 2011 Chinese officials admitted that “urgent problems” existed with the South-to-North Water Diversion Project, which included concerns about its cost, its environmental impact and the sacrifices poor people in the provinces made for those in richer cities.

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “Some Chinese scientists say the diversion could destroy the ecology of the southern rivers, making them as useless as the Yellow River. The government has neglected to do proper impact studies, they say. There are precedents in the United States. Lakes in California were damaged and destroyed when the Owens River was diverted in the early 20th century to build Los Angeles.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, June 1, 2011]

"They are robbing the water of the rest of China to supply Beijing — and it probably won't work anyway," Dai Qing told Los Angeles Times. He is a pro-democracy activist who was imprisoned during the run-up to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and who now focuses on water issues. Dai said there wasn't enough clean water in southern China to supply the north and that whatever water does reach Beijing might be too polluted to be usable. In fact, the Chinese government has acknowledged that the water from an eastern spur of the diversion project is so toxic that it is unclear whether it can be used even for agriculture [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2010]

Some Chinese scholars say the government should instead be limiting the population in the northern cities and encouraging water conservation.

Problems with the Central Route of South-to-North Water Diversion Project

Du Yun, a geologist at the China Academy of Sciences, has warned that the diversion of a third of the water in the Danjiangkou reservoir will raise the risk of pollution, sedimentation and flooding on the Han river. According to The Guardian: "To offset these fears, the government has earmarked an extra $1.25 billion to bolster the Han, including diverting water from the Three Gorges reservoir on the Yangtze and along the Xinglong Hinge,” James Watts wrote in The Guardian. “These measures — essentially robbing Peter to pay Paul — will require at least 400 miles of channels to be dug through farmland. Many people in Hubei feel they are still losing out.” [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, May 18, 2009]

“We are appealing for the government to increase the compensation fund for Han river projects and to build more sewage plants,” Shen Xiaoli, of the Research Academy of Environmental Science in Hubei, told The Guardian . “Once a construction project starts upstream, it requires water compensation downstream. This, in turn, necessitates other projects to deal with the negative impacts. It's a circle in which you need ever more solutions and ever more funds.”

The unhappiest people seem to be those from the middle reaches of the Han by the diversion scheme. “Local people are very worried about the impact on our ecology because we will lose a fifth of our water,” a resident of Xiangfan City told The Guardian. “Although we are concerned, everyone must express support. We dare not oppose the central government.”

Resettlement for the Central Part of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project

One obstacle to the South-to-North Water Diversion Projects was resistance by villagers who didn’t want to be relocated. In the village of Machuan on the banks of the Danjiangkou Dam in Henan Province, hundreds of villagers staged a march to criticize a local leader for ignoring their needs and engaging corruption related to the dam. Officials expect more protests in the future.

A total of 335,000 people were supposed to be relocated by the Danjiangkou Dam. Relocation was a serious problem because there was not really any places for the people to go. Those that were relocated complained that the land picked out for them to resettle on was not very good. Some became "dam refugees." "In the old days, people were willing to sacrifice their homes for Chairman Mao. But nowadays, their attitude is: 'If you don't give me money, I won't go,' " Dai told the Los Angeles Times. The raising of the Danjiangkou dam also inundated unique cultural and archeological sites.

In October 2009, a resettlement project involving 345,000 people living in central China's Hubei and Henan provinces was started. Sources at the resettlement headquarters in Henan said the provincial government s approved new settlement areas with convenient traffic conditions and good soil quality for relocated people. Xichuan County, Henan, will see the resettlement of 162,000 people, the largest number in a single county, in 185 villages. [Source: Xinhua,, October 18, 2009]

The government built 85 schools, 71 clinics and 3.2 million square meters of new housing. Compensation is higher than before. Scheduled to be completed in 2011, according to the province's resettlement authorities, the resettlement project was the country's second largest resettlement plan following similar relocations for the Three Gorges Hydro-Power Project, the world's largest, which involved the resettlement if 1.27 million residents. Populations were also diverted. In July 2010, authorities moved ahead with the biggest relocation in the South-to-North project so far — of 60,000 people in Henan.

There was little consultation and the plan was pushed through very quickly. It took 18 years to move everyone from the Three Gorges area. The diversion resettlement is taking place over just two years. Compared to past relocations, the state media insists the relocation is moving smoothly.

Relocations Along the Middle Route of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project

The government said the rising waters and a need to combat soil erosion necessitated moving 130,000 farmers in 2010 from around Danjiangkou reservoir. Similar relocations took place all along the main channel, which runs through four provinces. About 150,000 people had been resettled by the spring of 2011 . Many more were slated to follow. A recent front-page article in People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, said the project “has entered a key period of construction.”

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Hoping to avoid the type of public protests that dogged the Three Gorges project, Chinese authorities have raised compensation levels and built entire new villages, complete with schools, clinics, general stores and community centers. One such model village, Guanggou (the name was transplanted from the original community 240 miles away) looks like a cross between a California housing development and a prison, with rows of two-story red-roofed townhouses painted pale yellow, all surrounded by a high iron fence. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2010]

The Chinese government issued preferential policies to help compensate the resettlers' relocation losses. For instance, apart from compensation for unmovable property with the old home, each relocated family was allotted new arable land in the newly built village according to a standard of 0.1 hectare per person, plus an annual subsidy of about 88 U.S.dollars, a person for 20 years, according to Duan Shiyao, deputy chief of Hubei Provincial Resettlement Bureau. [IXinhua]

The 1,600 people relocated in August underwent training to farm their new land, which is drier than their old fields, and were even taught to change their diet from noodles to rice, which is more popular in part of Henan province they were relocated to. "We have given up everything for the greater good of the country, but the party has been good to us too," said Yao Ziliang, 74, sitting on the curb in front of the community center with many of the other old men. He said he was confident that the water diversion project would be a success. "Of course it will bring water to Beijing," he said. "The party would not lie to us." [Los Angeles Times ]

Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian, “Though Wang cried when she left her home in Xichuan, village leaders and propaganda slogans assured her the sacrifice was necessary for the nation. Migrants have also been promised new homes, compensation and farmland. But the reality, as many are discovering, is shoddily constructed housing, money that has been skimmed by officials, no jobs and a cold welcome from existing locals who are reluctant to share their property. [Source: Jonathan Watt, The Guardian September 9, 2011]

Many families have been resettled more than once. Zhang Guangren, an elderly woman who farms a small plot on the edge of Danjiangkou reservoir, was forced to move twice by dam projects during her youth. Now her son has been told he must leave his nearby apartment which will be flooded when water levels are raised for the diversion. She says the compensation — 40,000 yuan — is not enough to buy a new home, but they have no choice. "You can't go against the government. If you do, they'll force you to move."

Poor Land Given to People Relocated from the Middle Route of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project

Many were resettled far from their homes and given low-grade farmland; in Hubei, thousands of people have been moved to the grounds of a former prison. “Look at this dead yellow earth,” said Li Jiaying, 67, a hunched woman told the New York Times as she hobbled to her new concrete home clutching a sickle and a bundle of dry sticks for firewood. “Our old home wasn’t even being flooded for the project and we were asked to leave. No one wanted to leave.” “There’s nothing here,” said Huang Jiuguo, 57. “There’s no enterprise. Our children are grown, and they need something to do.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, June 1, 2011]

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times About 1,300 residents of Qingshan township have been moved to Xiangbei Farm, desolate land where a prison once stood. The villagers now live in sterile rows of yellow concrete houses 125 miles east of their abandoned ancestral homes. A government sign in the middle of the settlement says: “The land is fertile and has complete irrigation systems.” The farmers know better. Each person is supposed to get a small plot of land free, but the soil here is well known to be exceedingly poor. The people also complain that in the government’s compensation formula, their old homes were undervalued, so many have had to pay several thousand dollars to buy new homes.

For three days in November, thousands of residents of a resettlement area in Qianjiang city blocked roads to protest poorly built homes and lack of promised compensation, according to a report by Radio Free Asia. Officials ordered the police to break up the rally, resulting in clashes, injuries and arrests.

Unhappy People Relocated by the North-South Water Diversion Project

Reporting from Nanyang, Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian, “Visitors to Wang Baoying's new house must tread softly or they will frighten her son. The four-year-old boy is not afraid of strangers. He is terrified his home will fall down. This is not just the fear of a childish imagination. Wang's concrete home — built this year to resettle migrants from China's latest and greatest hydro-engineering project — wobbles when she walks. Her neighbour's floor has completely collapsed. Another's bedroom is tilting. There are cracks on many of the walls. "My son cries every night because he thinks the house might collapse," says Wang, who discovered the problems three days after she moved in to Shuitianyang new village. "It's terrible...The authorities told us this would be a perfect home."

When the Guardian talked to 30 relocated people in three villages in Nanyang, Henan province, only one was glad to have moved. Eight reluctantly accepted the patriotic sacrifice they had to make for the "national project." The remaining 21 were furious. Without exception, the longer they has been at their new homes the less they liked them. Zhang Jianchao was furious that local hospitals would not deliver the baby of his daughter-in-law. In a panic at her labour pains, he hired a car and drove his son and wife 160km back to their old town for the birth.

"I'm angry. It was very worrying and expensive," said the former silkworm farmer, who is now without land or work and living with his large family on a government allowance of 100 yuan (£10) per person per month. He says their new home is half the size of his old place because local officials cheated him of fair compensation.

The most commonly heard complaint is of official corruption. Villager after villager said their compensation was skimmed by cadres, usually by undervaluing the farmers' plots of land and over-estimating their own holdings. "I can accept that it will take time for us to make a living in our new homes but it is not fair that the officials have profited from this move. We were told that the sacrifice for this project would be shared," said Chen Xinfeng [name changed], who runs a small restaurant. "President Hu Jintao said honest folk shouldn't lose out, but that is what has happened."

Jia Zhaixu was one of the newest, happiest arrivals, having moved three days earlier and was settling in to a neat whitewashed, two-storey buildings in Dashiqiao. But the former farmer was clear-eyed about the future. "A new home is like a new wife. For the first three days, it's very exciting, but after that who knows how you will feel," he said.

Friction Between Relocated People and Locals

Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian, “Friction between the old and new communities seems to be getting worse. At Liangzhuandong new village — which migrants moved into a year ago — a crowd of residents gathered to expressed a long list of grievances, including inadequate compensation, unfulfilled promises of new land, poor water quality and fights with locals. [Source: Jonathan Watt, The Guardian September 9, 2011]

Propaganda slogans on walls and banners strung across the road urge residents to play a patriotic role to the "key state-level project". Many urge existing communities in the area to welcome the newcomers. "The waters of Danjiangkou are fresh and sweet. My heart is linked to the new migrant's heart," proclaims one of the most poetic exhortations.

The migrants are unhappy they have not been given a share of the local farmland as they were promised. The old residents complain their new neighbours are "uneducated people from the mountains." Both accuse the other of theft. This summer, the tension erupted into violence. According to several accounts, a fight between two individuals escalated rapidly into a melee involving several hundred people.

Elsewhere, there have been reports of demonstrations. Last November, police clashed with thousands of migrants in Qianjiang city to protest shoddy housing and inadequate compensation, according to Radio Free Asia.

Stress on the Han River by the Middle Route of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project

More than 14 million people in Hubei will be affected if the project damages the Han River, the tributary of the Yangtze where the middle route starts, Du Yun, a geographer at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan, told the New York Times. “We feel that we are still unsure how the project is going to impact on the environment, ecologies, economies and society at large,” said Mr. Du, who carefully added he was not outright opposed to the project.

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “The central question for people in Hubei is whether the Han River, crucial to farming and industrial production hubs, will be killed to keep north China alive. In a paper published in the Bulletin of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Mr. Du and two co-authors estimated that the diversion project would reduce the flow of the middle and lower stretches of the Han significantly, “leading to an uphill situation for the prevention of water pollution and ecological protection.” Though the study first appeared in 2006, the government has not altered its original plan, Mr. Du said. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, June 1, 2011]

“Central planners decided on the amount of water to be diverted based on calculations of water flow in the Han done from the 1950s to the early 1990s; since then, the water flow has dropped, partly because of prolonged droughts, but planners have made no adjustments, Mr. Du said. The amount to be diverted is more than one-third of the annual water flow. “That will exert a huge damaging impact on the river,” he said.”

“The Han River is already facing enormous challenges — industries are discharging more and more pollutants, companies are dredging sand to feed construction needs in nearby cities and algal bloom has hit the river hard. The diversion of water to Beijing will add to the pressures. “If the water quality cannot be ameliorated effectively, the aquatic life populations will be further decimated,” Mr. Du and his co-authors wrote.

“The diversion from the Han is necessitating more complex projects to raise water levels. One side diversion brings water from the Yangtze to the Han. Another would bring water from the Three Gorges reservoir to the Danjiangkou reservoir. Government officials in the south are keenly aware of the changes coming to the Han. In Xiangfan, officials have shuttered some small factories like paper producers and forced others to use more nonpolluting materials, said Yun Jianli, director of the environmental advocacy group Green Han River. “The local government is very concerned about the river and impact of the diversion project,” she said.”

Political Fights Related to the Middle Route of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “Officials in provinces south of Beijing and Tianjin have privately raised objections and are haggling over water pricing and compensation; midlevel officials in water-scarce Hebei Province are frustrated that four reservoirs in their region have sent more than 775 million cubic meters, or 205 billion gallons, of water to Beijing since September 2008 in an “emergency” supplement to the middle route.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, June 1, 2011]

“The political conflicts are obvious. Mr. Du, a member of the provincial consultative legislature, said officials in Hubei had been in constant negotiations with officials in Beijing for compensation. In the 1990s, the central government proposed a package of water projects valued at $50 million at the time to help Hubei. After rounds of negotiations, the current proposal for supplemental water projects is estimated at more than $1 billion.”

“The demands of the north will not abate. Migration from rural areas means Beijing’s population is growing by one million every two years, according to an essay in China Daily written last October by Hou Dongmin, a scholar of population development at Renmin University of China.” “With its dwindling water resources, Beijing cannot sustain a larger population,” Mr. Hou said. “Instead, it should make serious efforts to control the population, if not reduce it.”

“Beijing has about 100 cubic meters, or 26,000 gallons, of water available per person. According to a standard adopted by the United Nations, that is a fraction of the 1,000 cubic meters, or 260,000 gallons, per person that indicates chronic water scarcity.”

“The planning for Beijing’s growth up to 2020 by the State Council already assumes the water diversion will work, rather than planning for growth with much less water, said Mr. Wang, the former official. City planners see a Beijing full of golf courses, swimming pools and nearby ski slopes — the model set by the West.” “Instead of transferring water to meet the growing demand of a city, we should decide the size of a city according to how much water resources it has,” Mr. Wang said. “People’s desire for development has no end.”

Earthquake Hazards on the Western Route of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project

One of the main force behind the reassessment of the western route has been Liu Jianguo, an influential retired economist from the Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences. In the mid 2000s he released reports and wrote letters to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao raising alarms over the project.

Liu was particularly concerned that project is slated to cross five earthquake faults, including one that has experienced 18 destructive earthquakes between 1901 and 1976. Cracks in the dams could swamp millions of homes and kill tens of thousands of people. “The Sichuan earthquake was a warning,” he told the Washington Post . “This is extremely, extremely dangerous.”

Other concerns include swamping ecosystems tributaries of the upper Yangtze already suffering from deforestation,reducing the flow of water in the Yangtze to the Three Gorges dam that could reduce electric output by as much as 43 billion gallons a year, and the high cost of construction and compensation for people who lose their homes.

The decision to delay the project was made after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 was not made lightly. There are concerns that failure too complete the project could mean severe water shortages that result in great hardships for people living in northern China and cause the economy there to falter.

Pollution in Eastern Section of South-to-North Water Diversion Project

Contamination levels are so high along much of the eastern leg that the water is barely usable even after treatment. Almost all of the 426 pollution control projects have been completed, but the director of the project, Zhang Jiyao told the local media in 2010 that there was a long way to go before water quality could be assured. This raises the prospect of further delays and costs for a project that began in 2002 and was supposed to have been operational in 2007 Domestic media predicted earlier this year that it would not openuntil 2013. [Source: The Guardian, July 9, 2010]

According to The Guardian: “The city of Tianjin, which was supposed to have been the main beneficiary of the water diversion is already making alternative plans and building desalination plants to meet its water needs. It is hard to escape the conclusion that planners either massively underestimated the cost of the clear-up or that local governments have skimped on taking the necessary measures.

“When water comes to Beijing, there’s the danger of the water not being safe to drink,” Dai Qing, an environmental advocate who has written critically about the Three Gorges Dam, told the New York Times. “I think this project is a product of the totalitarian regime in Beijing as it seeks to take away the resources of others,” she added. “I am totally opposed to this project.”

Leaked Wikileaks Report on the North-South Water Diversion Project

Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian, “According to US diplomatic cables released via WikiLeaks in August 2011 the project is plagued by pollution and misconceived. In a cable dated 8 August 2008, the US embassy said the diversion is poorly conceived and unlikely to be completed. The eastern and central routes might ultimately serve their intended purpose, it says, but the western route could lead to "an irreversible drain on government funds." [Source: Jonathan Watt, The Guardian September 9, 2011]

The US diplomats said the money would be much better spent on water conservation and improved irrigation. Ultimately, they predicted, the supply-side engineered solution would fail. "In the unlikely event that the project is completed in its entirety by its original deadline of 2050, the water crisis may have intensified to such a point that the amount of water the project is able to supply will have already become insufficient, making it necessary to find an entirely new solution," they noted.

Other doubts remain. Du Yun, a geographer at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan, has questioned whether the Han River can spare water. Ultimately, he told The Guardian, the project's viability could be undermined by changing weather patterns and improved technology. "The trend recently is for more rain in the north and less in the south. Water diversion is not cheap, but the price of desalination is falling. Right now, it is unclear whether water diversion is economical".

Image Sources: 1) Gary Braasch ; 2, 3) Xinhua; 4) Earth Policy; 5) ESWN, Environmental News; 6); 7), 9) CnHubei 8) Water Technology; 10) China Hiking

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.