The water we drinkChina to push sea water thousands of miles inland

Published 15 November 2010

Chinese officials say they have a found a solution to uninhabitable deserts of Xinjiang in west china: pump raw sea water thousands of miles from the coast to fill Xinjiang’s dried-up salt lakes and desert basins in the hope that it will evaporate and encourage rainfall over drought-stricken areas of northern and northwestern China; the sea water would be carried through a pipeline made of plastic and fiberglass; water experts have condemned the proposal

Local officials in China’s arid northwest have launched a new push for a vast water-diversion project that would pump raw sea water thousands of miles from the coast to the deserts of Xinjiang through a pipeline made of plastic and fiberglass.

The idea is to desalinate some of the seawater, but to use the rest to fill Xinjiang’s dried-up salt lakes and desert basins in the hope that it will evaporate and encourage rainfall over drought-stricken areas of northern and northwestern China.

Jeremy Page writes in the Wall Street Journal that local government officials and water experts held a conference in Xinjiang two weeks ago to give new impetus to the proposal under which seawater would be pumped across four mountain ranges, and up to a height of more than 1,280 meters, on its way from the Bohai Sea off the coast of northeast China via Inner Mongolia to Xinjiang.

Several water experts and environmental activists have condemned the proposal, comparing it to the giant Three Gorges dam and another controversial scheme to channel the waters of the Yangtze River from southern to northern China.

Li Xin’e, a local official who organized the conference, defended the idea as one of the only ways to alleviate the water shortages which she said were crippling development across northwestern China.

Li, who heads the economics department of Xinjiang’s Development Research Center, said the project now under way to divert the Yangtze from south to north would ease water shortages in central and northern China.

However, northwestern China still faces a water-supply problem,” she told the Wall Street Journal.

She said the Xinjiang government had filed a report on the proposal to the State Council — China’s cabinet — in 2006 and Premier Wen Jiabao had read it and asked for more detailed research, which has now been completed.

The central government did not respond to requests for comment. The State Council Research Office, however, produced a report in 2007 which agreed that the project was feasible and could help to alleviate water shortages, reduce dust pollution, and boost coal production, according to a copy seen by the Wall Street Journal.

Li said the central government had not yet allocated funding, or a government department to oversee the project. Local authorities were pushing ahead with their own plans in Xinjiang, the northeastern province of Liaoning and the northern region of Inner Mongolia. Liaoning and Inner Mongolia have both suffered severe water shortages in recent years.

China’s latest 5-year plan, which was approved by the Communist Party’s Central Committee last month, included a call to “encourage seawater desalination,” but did not mention any specific projects.

Of course, there are some different opinions,” Li said. “Some geology and meteorology departments thought the seawater could bring ecological disaster. But actually, the technical barriers have been removed.”

She said big advances had been made in desalination technology in the Middle East, the United States, and the European Union. The U.S.-based International Desalination Association also says advances in filter-membrane and distillation technology have lowered costs and made the industry more energy-efficient in recent years.

There is no estimate yet of the total cost of the project or the volume of water involved. Some Chinese experts at Friday’s conference said they expected the cost of transporting sea water to Xinjiang to be about 7 yuan ($1.05) per cubic meter, compared to 20 yuan ($3) for the south-north Yangtze diversion scheme.

Others, however, call the project unfeasible and urge the government to focus instead on limiting consumption and recycling waste water rather than investing billions of dollars in a project that would probably take decades to build.

Environmental activists, meanwhile, likened the scheme to the $23 billion Three Gorges Dam, which was completed in 2006. The government says the dam is the best way to end centuries of deadly annual floods and to provide energy to fuel China’s economic boom. Critics argue that it cost too much, forced 1.4 million people from their homes unnecessarily, and could increase the risk of landslides, earthquakes and damage to the Yangtze’s ecology.

Patricia Adams, the head of Probe International, a Toronto-based environmental group that campaigned against the Three Gorges, said the Xinjiang scheme was “more the product of propaganda than serious science.”

I would say the project is uneconomic and impractical — one that only a government undisciplined by markets and public oversight would ever contemplate, let alone implement,” she said.

This isn’t a serious attempt to meet real water needs and solve real environmental problems and it would be a terrible waste of money that the Chinese people can ill afford.”