Project will bring waters from the Yangtze river to the Yellow river

China's ambitious $80-billion project to divert waters of southern rivers to the arid north is nearing completion and will begin supplying water next year, officials have said.

The project's eastern and central routes, which will bring waters from the Yangtze river to the Yellow river, will be fully constructed in the next two years, planners told a review of the project conducted over the weekend in eastern Shandong province.

Reports of the meeting were silent about long-pending proposals for a controversial western route, which has so far been stalled over environmental and technical concerns. The western route includes a plan to divert the Brahmaputra's waters to northern China.

The south-to-north water diversion plan is one of the most ambitious construction projects embarked on by Chinese engineers, estimated to cost more than 500 billion yuan (around $80 billion). It envisages diverting 44.8 billion cubic metres of water every year from Yangtze by 2050. The water-deprived and drought-affected north, home to 35 per cent of the population, has only seven per cent of the country's water resources.

Time frame

The project will be partially completed this year and “will start supplying water in 2013”, water conservancy officials at Saturday's meeting were quoted as saying by the State-run Xinhua news agency.

Sun Yifu, deputy water resources chief in Shandong, through which much of the eastern route runs, said the entire route would become operational in the first half of 2013, with 18 water supply units coming online next year and 23 others before 2015.

Construction of the eastern route began in 2002, when the whole project was given approval after decades of planning. The project was first proposed in the 1950s and backed by Mao Zedong. The central route began to be built the following year. It will be completed in 2014. Officials said last year more than 440,000 people would be relocated for the eastern and central routes, bringing criticism of project's costs. Around 100,000 people will be displaced every year until 2014. The project has also been delayed by a number of environmental problems.

Construction has not yet begun on the western route, which plans to divert water from the upper reaches of the Yangtze as well as a number of rivers on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, including the Brahmaputra and Mekong.

This plan has triggered concern among many of China's neighbours, including India, which lie downstream of these rivers and depend on their waters. Of the western route, the Xinhua report of Saturday's meeting only said construction had not begun. It, however, remains unclear whether the central government has given the green light to any of the proposed diversions, amid environmental concerns of the project's impact on the ecologically sensitive Tibetan plateau.

Chinese officials have recently ruled out diverting the Brahmaputra, or Yarlung Tsangpo as it is known in Tibet. In October, Jiao Yong, Vice Minister of Water Resources, said China had no plans to divert the river considering “technical difficulties, environmental impacts and state relations”.

The central government has, however, come under increasing pressure from hydropower lobby groups to allow the construction of run-of-the-river power generation projects on the middle and upper reaches, with proposals from hydropower companies for as many as 27 dams, including a massive 38-gigawatt plant on the river's “Great Bend”, where it begins its course towards India.

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