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South-to-North Water Diversion Project

The South-to-North Water Diversion Project, also translated as the South-to-North Water Transfer Project, is one of the world’s most ambitious, and controversial, engineering projects. The project, which took 50 years to get off the ground and another 50 years to complete, aims to solve the country's worsening drought problems with three giant channels that divert part of the Yangtze river towards the Yellow River and thirsty cities and factories around Beijing. More than twice as expensive as the Three Gorges Dam and three times longer than the railway to Tibet, the project aims to bring 50 billion cubic meters of water a year — equivalent to the annual flow of the Yellow River — from relatively well-watered southern China to water-starved northern China along three routes in western, central and eastern China. The main beneficiaries are Beijing, the industrial hub of Tianjin and Jiangsu and Shandong provinces in the east.

First proposed in 1952, the scheme was approved by Mao Zedong, who said it was fine for the south to “lend a little water”, but until the 2000s, the government didn't have the money or technical ability to go ahead. The project involve building three canals — two of them more than 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) long — that link four major rivers: the Yangtze River, the Yellow River, Huige River and Haihe River. The South to North Water Project is projected to cost between $55 billion and $68 billion. When the project was launched in 2002 it was estimated it would cost $2 billion. The government insists the main reason for the ballooning cost has been the high price of relocating large numbers of people. Critics have said it is due to large amounts of money being skimmed off by corrupt officials.

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “A chronic drought is ravaging farmland. The Gobi Desert is inching south. The Yellow River, the so-called birthplace of Chinese civilization, is so polluted it can no longer supply drinking water. The rapid growth of megacities — 22 million people in Beijing and 12 million in Tianjin alone — has drained underground aquifers that took millenniums to fill. Not atypically, the Chinese government has a grand and expensive solution: Divert at least six trillion gallons of water each year hundreds of miles from the other great Chinese river, the Yangtze, to slake the thirst of the north China plain and its 440 million people. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, June 1, 2011]

The South-North Water Diversion Project would be like channeling water from the Mississippi River to meet the drinking needs of New York Boston and Washington. Yang Sheya, 38, an engineering supervisor working on the underground aqueduct along the banks of the Yellow River, 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.” The project’s official Web site says that the diversion “will be an important and basic facility for mitigating the existing crisis of water resources in north China” and that sufficient studies have been done. Wang Jian, a former environmental and water management official with the Beijing government and the State Council, China’s cabinet, said that the project “carries huge risks,” but there are no other options given the severity of the current water shortage.

The South-to-North Water Diversion Project is widely supported the political and scientific community, arguing that water is desperately needed in the north, but is opposed by archeologists, farmers, environmentalist and people who live along the construction route. Between 500,000 and 1 million residents are expected to be displaced and the primary recipients of the water are city dwellers and industries not farmers. Important archeological sites, such as fossil beds where dinosaur eggs and 800,000-year-old human remains were found and buildings from the Ming Dynasty have been submerged. Some worry that bringing polluted water from the Yangtze River to the north will poison China’s breadbasket.

History of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project

The diversion project was first studied in the 1950s, after Mao made an offhand remark in 1952: "There's a lot of water in the south, but not much in the north. If we could borrow some, then everything would be OK."In a country afflicted by severe cycles of droughts and floods and peasant rebellions that often resulted from them, control of water has always been important to Chinese rulers. Emperors sought to legitimize their rule with large-scale water projects like the Grand Canal or the irrigation system in Dujiangyan.

After the initial studies in the 1950s, the government did not look seriously again at the project until the 1990s, when north China was hit hard by droughts. The Chinese have studied water works from ancient China to Israel, updated with the latest technology, to design a system that uses no pumps, relying only on gravity to have the water run from the higher elevations of the south to Beijing.In 2002, the State Council gave the green light for work to start on the middle and eastern routes.

Construction of the The South-to-North Water Diversion project began in December 2002. Despite much criticism of its cost and possible ecological damage, the first of its three projected sections, an eastern route running from the Yangtze to Shandong Province, began operations in December 2013. The central phase opened in December 2014. The lines were originally supposed to open by the 2008 Summer Olympics, but was held up by a multitude of problems. The western route, which would run at an average altitude of 3,050 to 4,000 meters (10,000 to 13,000 feet) across the Tibetan plateau to help irrigate the Yellow River basin, has been deemed too difficult to start for now and is still in the planning stage.

Water Starts Flowing on South-to-North Transfer Project to Beijing in 2014

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Canal along the Yellow River
The central phase of the South-North Diversion Project — the second of the three routes to open — opened in December 2014. Water began flowing to Beijing through more than 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) of channels and pipes — the distance from London to Madrid. [Source: Giles Hewitt, AFP, April 17, 2015]

The first waters to enter the scheme took about two week to reach Beijing. Kiki Zhao wrote in the New York Times: “The water began its journey from upper reaches of the Han River, the biggest tributary of the Yangtze through the central route of the South-to-North Water Diversion project. It was collected in the Danjiangkou Reservoir in Hubei Province before being moved to the capital, where it is expected to provide nearly a third of the city’s annual water needs. [Source: Kiki Zhao, New York Times, December 25, 2014]

“Still, some experts say that the costly endeavor — Chinese newspapers put the price of the central section at more than $32 billion — is no long-term solution. They say that Beijing will continue to face severe water shortages, as the region’s surging population and economy continue to feed demand and pollution degrades available supplies. One scientist with the Department of Water Resources in China said that the new inflow of water would provide some relief to the capital but would hardly compensate for the overexploitation of aquifers.

“In July, the director of the Beijing office of the South-to-North Water Diversion project, Sun Guosheng, told the state-run news agency Xinhua that though the water from the Danjiangkou Reservoir would improve Beijing’s supply, it would not be a complete solution. More emphasis must be placed on conservation, Mr. Sun said. “The entire society needs to tighten water faucets,” he said.

Central Route and Reservoir of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project

The Central Canal is the centerpiece of South-to-North Water Diversion Project. It diverts water to Beijing from a huge Yangtze-River-fed reservoir in southern China and is supposed ensure that Beijing has enough water into the 21st century. The 1,267-kilometer canal snakes from the Danjiangkou Dam in central Hubei Province to Beijing, in some places diverting water through canals within the Funui and Taihang mountains.

One of the largest public works projects ever conceived, the Central Canal traverses a distance equal to the distance between Washington D.C. and the Mississippi River, and was projected to deliver almost 4 trillion gallons of water — more than seven times the amount used in New York City annually — to Beijing each year. The project was a great engineering challenge: the canal was built entirely from scratch, with 1,774 structures constructed along its length to channel the water, since there is no pre-existing waterway like the Grand Canal to follow.

The main channel crosses 219 rivers and streams in the industrial heartland of China before reaching Beijing. and consists primarily of a manmade pipeline-canal- aqueduct that drops 100 meters (328) feet before it reaches Beijing. The biggest obstacle was the Yellow River, where engineers planned to either to dig a five-mile-long water tunnel under the river or erect an elevated aqueduct supported by 160 giant pylons over it. The source water from the Han River is relatively clean. At the start of the route, the water level of the Danjiangkou Reservoir on the Han River has been raised 13 meters (43 feet) to 161 meters (558 feet) so that the water can flow downhill to Beijing.

Reporting from just north of Henan's provincial capital, Zhengzhou, Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Here, the Chinese hydro-engineers have scooped out a 1,000-foot-wide canal from the dun-colored land. It plunges 180 feet underground to pass beneath the Yellow River. (The Yellow itself is too polluted to supply drinking water.) From a footbridge at the spot where the canal begins its descent, there is a man-made abyss that looks like the Grand Canyon. Everything is massive, from the mountains of excavated dirt to the huge riverside drills used to install underground pipes almost 25 feet in diameter.

The South-to-North Water Diversion Project required a six-year effort to raise Danjiangkou Dam and expand the reservoir behind it into a body of water the size of the planned Three Gorges Reservoir. The pre-existing dam and reservoir was built in the 1950s when "100,000 Chinese peasants, seized by the political fever of Mao Zedong's call to catch up with the West in the Great Leap Forward, muscled a mountain of stone to block one of the Yangtze River's largest tributaries and built a dam." The peasants "abandoned their farms, lived in mud huts and ate starvation rations for the glory of Communism."

The main “central route” of South-to-North Water Diversion Project was due to be finished in 2010. In December 2008, the Chinese government pushed back the completion date of the main route by four years to 2014, citing stubborn pollution. The central route also faced delays over compensation concerns. About 345,000 people were relocated and swaths of farmland cleared. It opened in December 2014.

Massive Tunnels on the Central Route of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project

Construction of the Central Route of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project involved the building of an underground pipeline. The "middle course" aqueduct, which took six years to build, provides enough water to irrigate a chunk of land the size of South Carolina. At Jiaozuo, a 40-minute drive north of Zhengzhou, engineers from the 16th Bureau of the China Railway Construction Group dug a 40-meter (130-foot) -wide channel through red earth. It takes 9.5 billion cubic meters of water from the Han river, which feeds the Yangtze, to Beijing. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, May 18, 2009]

Describing the the pits and tunnels at Jiaozuo in Henan province Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian. “Staring up from the bottom of the deepest pipe in the world's most ambitious plumbing operation, the view is that of a frog in a well: a small distant disc of sky. Look again two years from now, and you would see a torrent of water apparently defying gravity as it surges up the 130ft (39m) shaft first towards the heavens, then to Beijing and other thirsty cities.”

“At Jiaozuo, giant drills have already gouged out more than half of the 2.5 mile-long tunnel that takes the water under the Yellow river. At the foot of the construction shaft, the nine-meter wide concrete pipe stretches into the dark far below the farm fields that stretch towards the river. “This is a first in the history of the Yellow,” one of the engineers, Han Jiping, says proudly. “There is nothing to compare.”

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Routes of South-to-North Water Diversion Project

Eastern Route of South-to-North Water Diversion Project

The eastern canal directs water from Yangtze River to the industrial area of Tianjin. It is almost as long as the central canal, running about 1,000 kilometers, and was relatively easy to build. Much of it piggybacks on the Grand Canal, whose course was changed, using massive pumps in 15 enormous pump stations set up along the canal. The pumps forces the water to flow south-to-north rather than north to south as it has through the centuries. The greatest challenge of this project has been dealing with the Grand Canal’s heavily polluted water. Plans involved the closure of polluting factories and building water treatment plants in places where sewage empties into the canal.

The Yangtze is so polluted that 426 sewage treatment plants had to be built; water pollution control on the route takes up 44 percent of the $5 billion investment, according to Xinhua, the official news agency.

The heart of the eastern route is upgrading the 1,800-kilometer-long Grand Canal with pumping stations. There are concerns that the water may be too polluted for drinking. The eastern leg, along the Grand canal, was supposed to be easiest to finish, but pollution in this heavily industrialised region is so great that water treatment is prohibitively expensive. Tianjin reportedly prefers to build desalination plants. The 722-mile-long Eastern Route along the old Grand Canal was scheduled to come online in the late 2000s. It was opened in 2013.

Western Route of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project

The western route of South-to-North Water Diversion Project is centered around a $39 billion, 300 kilometers network of canals that divert waters from upper-Yangtze-River-feeding streams in Tibet into the shrinking Yellow River and join the eastern and central routes. When the first phase is complete it will provide 1 billion cubic meters of water a year and increase to 17 billion a year in later decades of the 21st century.

The western canal is relatively short, running around 300 kilometers, but is the most complex and technically demanding part of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project. It will run at an average altitude of 3,050 to 4,000 meters (10,000 to 13,000 feet) across the Tibetan plateau to help irrigate the Yellow River basin, has been deemed too difficult to start for now. It will require the digging of tunnels and aqueducts in high-altitude mountains, sometimes in sub-zero temperatures. Many details still need to be worked out.

The “western route” — embraces seven dams, 1,000 kilometers of tunnels through mountains near Yangtze tributaries in western Sichuan and Qinghai Provinces. Water needs to be raised about 500 meters to feed it into the Yellow River. The western route was supposed to break ground in 2010 but was delayed and might be cancelled altogether because of concerns about the high costs, environmental damage and earthquakes and concerns about the political and economic cost of diverting water from the Yangtze to the Yellow, high on the Tibet-Qinghai plateau.

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

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