Like so many of Mao’s pronouncements, it sounded simple. “The South has a lot of water; the North lacks water. So if it can be done, borrowing a little water and bringing it up might do the trick.” And thus, in 1952, the foundation was laid for what four decades later would become China’s most ambitious engineering project—a scheme to haul some 45 billion cubic meters of water, mostly from the mighty Yangtze and its tributaries, up to the north China plain to Beijing and the parched farmland and factory towns around it. The central route of the project began carrying water from Hubei to Beijing in late 2014, and, like so many of Mao’s plans, it has left a swath of human devastation in its wake.
Most environmentalists see the South-to-North Water Transfer Project as a necessary, though not sufficient, solution to the severe water shortages suffered in China’s capital and surrounding areas—a situation that owes much to weather and climate but which has been compounded by the over-damming of the region’s rivers (another of Mao’s enthusiasms) and the severe pollution of its already small supply. Without comparably ambitious plans for regulation and conservation, experts like Ma Jun have been saying for more than a decade, those 45 billion cubic meters are just a drop in the bucket. And the project has put its own stresses on the environment, even as it has alleviated others. When I visited the Danjiangkou reservoir, the place at the heart of Sharron Lovell and Tom Wang’s new film, in 2006, environmentalists downstream worried the transfer would strip the major Yangtze tributary it was damming of its ability to flush itself clean of the pollutants that streamed into it from the surrounding countryside.
On the winning end are residents of Beijing’s ever-sprawling suburbs, hoping for reliable showers and clean water to cook with. On the short end of the stick are the people from areas giving up their water, who have had to leave their homes, find new work, leave behind the comforts of community and family, and fathom how their lives fit into the grand and ambitious plans their leaders have devised to solve their nation’s problems.
Introduction by Susan Jakes
This multimedia report features a 20-minute web documentary and long-form text. If you are short on time you can choose to either watch or read. alternatively, sit back and do both for an in-depth insight into the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people who have been forcibly relocated for the world's biggest water transfer.