Written by Sam Geall.

At the end of this month, the “middle route” of China’s massive South-to-North Water Transfer project will become operational, supplying Yangtze River water from the Dangjiakou Reservoir in central Hubei province to arid Beijing for the first time.

Famously proposed by Mao Zedong in 1952 to address chronic water scarcity in northern China, and built over the past 11 years, the 1,200-kilometre system of canals, pipelines, aqueducts and pumping stations will no doubt be celebrated in state media and elsewhere as a triumphant example of long-term vision and planning. Perhaps as an engineering feat that broke through nature’s limits to create greater abundance in a country with only around one-third of the global average freshwater resources per capita.

But this dominant narrative about the South-to-North Water Transfer is flawed.

First, because the megaproject comes at an even higher price than is commonly acknowledged. Researchers at the University of Oxford have shown how budgets for large hydropower dams around the world “are systematically biased below actual costs”; this is likely also the case for the water transfer, with its head engineer telling news website Quartz that the oft-quoted cost of 500 billion yuan is “meaningless” and will certainly be exceeded.

Moreover, this is before the project’s spiraling “externalised” costs – from the effects on water pollution, to the carbon emissions from energy generated to pump vast quantities of water and the social costs of the internal displacement of hundreds of thousands of people – are taken into account. Qiu Baoxing, vice-minister at China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, has said that the same effect as the water transfer could be achieved were one-third of buildings in Beijing to collect more rainwater and recycle more wastewater.

Second, the dominant narrative is flawed because the many other, interlocking challenges for China’s water security are no less urgent than the north’s limited freshwater availability relative to the south, but far more complex. Here are just five of those water challenges coming down the line – all of which will require careful social, political and practical solutions – yet are often not amenable to such large-scale engineering fixes:

1)    Knottiness at the “nexus”: the so-called “nexus” of water, energy and food systems is becoming a popular way to conceptualise the water security challenge around the world. In the Chinese context, a number of major issues emerge: for example, around 70% of China’s energy is from coal, and around 70% of these plants are situated in the water-scarce north, with around half already suffering from water shortages. Coal is a very water intensive form of energy production – it requires 24 bathtubs of water to extract and wash one tonne of coal – but so are most of the alternatives. Take gas, for example: Li Junfeng, from Chinese government think-tank the National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation, has said that China’s projected annual production of 400 billion cubic metres of shale gas and natural gas by 2030 will require at least 15 billion cubic metres of freshwater each year for the extraction process. This is around one-third of the total volume of water the diversion megaproject expects to transport each year, and it is why Li argues water security is “more important” than energy security in China today and places a particular emphasis on reducing the water intensity of energy production.

2)     Transboundary trouble: the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses came into effect earlier this year. The deal is no panacea, but it points towards the ways in which trust might be forged between countries that share rivers. Yet, as Beth Walker has pointed out, neither China nor India have ratified the agreement – a portent of further tension, even possible conflict, in a region where China’s role as an upstream country developing large hydropower projects on international watercourses is increasingly controversial in countries like Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

3)     Pollution problems: for many people in both rural and urban China, contamination is as much or more of a concern than water scarcity. According to an assessment by the Ministry of Environmental Protection last year more than 30% of the country’s major rivers were “polluted” or “seriously polluted”; in 198 cities inspected in 2012, more than 57% of the groundwater was rated “bad” or “extremely bad”.  The drivers of pollution are multiple, as are the ways in which these problems will have to be addressed: one in-depth study of water in rural areas, conducted by the Beijing-based NGO Greenovation Hub, found many villages polluted by fertiliser and pesticide overuse, by chemicals and antibiotics used in aquaculture, by poultry manure dumped into reservoirs and by contaminants leaching from landfill sites. Encouragingly, the NGO distributes small water-testing kits that citizens can buy online to check the levels of various pollutants in their local surface water.

4)    Urbanisation’s uncertainties: for the first time in its history, China now has more urban than rural residents and building new cities is a core aspect of state policy. Cities have the potential to increase efficiency and sustainability in consumption and production. But they also pose new water challenges: flooding has become a major problem in many Chinese cities, where both drainage infrastructure and measures such as warning systems are often lacking. Faith Chan and Ni Huan point out that storm-water drainage capacities are “far too weak in most places” across China, pointing to the torrential rainstorm in Beijing in July 2012 that killed 37 people.

5)     Climate crises: extreme weather events like storm surges indicate the extent to which climate changes might exacerbate impacts on cities. Scholars and planners have noted a consequence of China’s export-oriented industrial strategy, which has led to a build-up of urban settlements in low-elevation coastal zones: the movement of vulnerable, poorer urban populations towards risk-prone coastal locations – risks that are not only exacerbated by the infrastructural problems above but also by potential sea-level rise and stronger tropical storms.

In every one of the water challenges identified above – from the complex interactions of strained water, energy and food systems, to the melting of glaciers on at the “Third Pole” and their potential effects on transboundary waters – climate change increases the uncertainties faced by policymakers. In such a context, smart engineering approaches are vital, but technical expertise will need to be matched with social and political learning, flexibility and a close attention to local perspectives.

Sam Geall is Executive Editor of chinadialogue and Research Fellow on Low-Carbon Innovation in China at SPRU, University of Sussex. He is a CPI blog Regular Contributor and he tweets @samgeall. Image credit: CC Construction Bert van Dijk/Flickr.