08 Jan 2009: Report

On Chinese Water Project,
A Struggle Over Sound Science

Geologist Yong Yang has serious concerns about plans for a massive Yangtze River diversion project. When he went public with them, he found out how difficult it can be to challenge a government decision in China. The third in a series on Chinese environmentalists.

by christina larson

In January 2007, an independent geologist named Yong Yang set out from his home in China’s western Sichuan Province with a small team of researchers packed into two SUVs to find the unmarked place on the Tibetan plateau from which the Yangtze River springs. They drove over 16,000 miles through China’s still-wild western frontier – vast hinterlands where no roads cross, with mountainous terrain known only to local herders, antelope and wolves.

Yong is a bit of an outdoors adventure junkie (he was previously among the first kayakers to navigate the treacherous upper reaches of the Yangtze), but on this trip his mission was more profound: to investigate the geological and hydrological conditions of the Yangtze River basin – and to evaluate whether a colossal three-part water-diversion project planned by the government, called the “South-to-North Water Transfer Project,” could live up to its incredible billing.

The aim is to alleviate water shortages in parched northern China. But critics, both inside and outside the government, worry that it will be a giant boondoggle – wasting billions of dollars, forcing the relocation of thousands of people, and causing irreparable damage to unique and fragile ecosystems.

China is facing severe water shortages. Both Chinese and Western experts predict that in the next 15 years, China’s shortage of clean water will create up to 30 million “environmental refugees.”

This problem is particularly acute in northern China, where climate and geology have always made water a limited resource. No one seriously disputes that bold steps must be taken to forestall a crisis. But the question is whether Beijing’s ambition – to build a $62 billion series of canals to divert water from the Yangtze River in the south to the Yellow River in the north – will actually work.

Yong’s research has focused on the western leg, which is perhaps the most controversial. When I first met him in his offices in Sichuan in the spring of 2007, he had just returned from his midwinter expedition. The 49-year-old geologist, wearing a dark sweater and black jacket, looked thin and worn, as you might expect from someone who had just survived for two months on canned foods, occasional fresh-killed meat, and cigarettes. When I saw him again that October, for an update on his research, his cheeks were rosier and rounder. In a Beijing hotel room we huddled over his laptop to examine spreadsheets of data compiled from his trip.

Based on his research, he believes the government’s blueprints for the western leg of the water-diversion project are based on inaccurate estimates of the volume of water in the upper Yangtze. If the diversion plan fails, the consequences of faulty engineering could be disastrous for downstream communities, including Shanghai, that depend on the Yangtze for agriculture, industry, and hydropower. Reduced river flow could shutter downstream hydropower stations, inflicting blackouts on millions.

The Chinese government has in the past unleashed disastrous plans with the best of intentions. Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, for instance, set targets for enhanced steel and grain production based on fantasy, rather than science. Unable to meet unrealistic goals, local cadres felt compelled to fudge performance numbers, ensuring that inaccurate data and corruption would doom the effort. More recently, the government’s Three Gorges Dam hydropower project – an attempt to address the country’s rapidly growing energy needs that was completed this fall – has run into trouble. Even government officials acknowledged, after the fact, that faulty geological planning along the dam’s route had caused massive landslides and created the potential for an “environmental catastrophe.”

In recent years, a small but growing number of Chinese scientists, including former government scientists such as Yong, have joined the country’s fledgling environmental movement – not for ideological reasons, but because they worry about how decisions regarding environmental challenges, such as water shortages, are being made.

Another concerned scientist is Dr. Yu Xiaogang, a prominent Chinese environmentalist and winner of the prestigious international “Goldman Environmental Prize” in 2006. He began his career in a government ministry in Yunnan province, but became frustrated with the way science was conducted within his bureau. “I find that inside the system, you can do only so-called ‘decision-making supporting research,’” he told me. “That means the government has already made the decision. You do research to support the decision. You never do something that changes the decision.”

For his part, Yong told me his goal now is better public policy. “I am not against the government,” he says. “What I want is to get the facts.”

Research versus policy

Yong learned his rugged respect for the outdoors – a mix of awe and trepidation – from his father, a Red Army officer who had been posted in western China. Yong studied geology at the China Mining Industry University, then went to work for the Ministry of Coal’s mining bureau, where he did research to assess geological and environmental risks. At one point, Yong tried to caution that a plan to ship coal down a river on barges was untenable because massive erosion had made the surrounding hillsides prone to landslides. But his superiors didn’t want to hear the bad news.

Yong later explained to me how science was conducted within his bureau. “The government, they will make a goal. Then their researchers think their job is just to say it works. Everybody will just say the good word, and try to find data to support it,” he said. “It’s not a very scientific way of doing research.”

What prompted Yong to think about conducting research independently was his participation in a series of boat trips down the Yangtze River in 1986, in conjunction with teams of international scientists and
I am not against the government,' says Yong. 'What I want is to get the facts.'
environmentalists. The “adventure,” as he calls it, steeled his nerves (before his team’s trip, five people had died trying to navigate the same course), reinforced his regard for nature’s splendor and danger, and introduced him to the international scientific community and global environmental literature. Soon after, he quit his government job to work full-time as an independent geologist, focusing on environmental risk assessment and collaborating with international organizations including Arizona State University and the UK Great Nature Society.

His scientific research has spanned many regions of China, but always Yong has returned to the Yangtze. On his recent winter expedition, Yong's team traced every bend in the western reaches of the river. The previous summer they had traveled roughly the same route, so they could compare water levels in different seasons. On both trips they collected data on rainfall, geology, receding glaciers, and other trends that affect the volume of water in the river.

Based on his analysis of the available data – from his own research, and from 30 years’ worth of reports from hydrology monitoring stations – Yong believes that the planned western route of the South-to-North Water Transfer Project won’t work. Through friends who still work for the government, he obtained copies of two official government plans for the project. These blueprints, he says, are based upon data he calls “completely unreasonable.”

As Yong explained, along this section of the upper Yangtze, the government’s plans call for diverting between 8 and 9 billion cubic meters of water north each year. However, his research indicates that the average annual water flow for that section of the river includes a low estimate of 7 billion cubic meters per year. This would mean that when the river flow is low, the government would be hoping to divert an amount of water greater than the total annual volume in the river.

Yong is surely not alone in doubting the feasibility of the final section of the water-diversion project. More than 50 scientists in Sichuan contributed to a 2006 book, South-to-North Water Transfer Project Western Route Memorandums. The collection of scientific articles and reports raises serious concerns about construction at high altitudes, seismic stability, pollution in the Yangtze, climate change (the river's volume is expected to diminish as Tibet's glaciers melt), and the potential for reduced river flow to shutter hundreds of downstream hydropower stations.

No matter whose figures are correct, what worries Yong most is that there is no open, independent system in place to determine whether such a
What worries Yong most is that there is no independent system to determine whether such a colossal undertaking will work.
colossal and disruptive undertaking will work. For now, discussion of the project, handled by the government’s Yellow River Conservancy Commission, continues to take place behind closed doors. Last year, Yong tried to open a channel of communication to ask how officials had arrived at their figures, but the commission’s staffers refused to respond. “They just emphasize that there won't be much problem,” he said.

With its authoritarian government, China has both advantages and disadvantages in confronting its massive environmental challenges. “On the one hand, ambitious projects can be more quickly implemented, and when they work, can do so on an astonishing scale,” says Dr. Zhao Jianping, sector coordinator for energy in the World Bank's China Office. “On the other hand, there’s no system of checks and balances. So if you make a mistake, it might not become apparent for several years, after which it’s very difficult to change course and avert disastrous consequences.”

For now, Yong is reaching out to environmentalists like Yu and others whom he hopes can help transmit his concerns to the authorities. Whether or not independent scientists, or even government scientists who question official plans, will be permitted to have any influence over future public policy remains to be seen. As Yong says, “Science is the most damning kind of criticism.”

POSTED ON 08 Jan 2009 IN Biodiversity Climate Science & Technology Water Asia Europe 


What is the danger that Yong will be imprisoned for embarrassing the government?
Posted by Don on 08 Jan 2009

Thanks for your concern, Don. All Chinese environmentalists walk a delicate line in voicing concerns about public projects and polluting factories. On the one hand, the government has given them much more freedom to operate than in the past, in part because Beijing wishes to engage the public in environmental clean-up efforts. On the other hand, the definition of permissible action is subtle and ever shifting, and varies province by province.

For his part, Yong has been engaged in work like this for over a decade and made a decision that this is what he wishes to do. His courageousness and willingness to share his research definitely earned the respect of this reporter. His aim -- it’s worth reinforcing -- is not to embarrass anyone, but to provide a scientific assessment; his critiques focus on particular quantifiable concerns.

Posted by Christina Larson on 08 Jan 2009

Would another potential problem with the diversion be clogging of the channels by the large volume of silt that is in the Yangtze? What will the impact be on farming and agriculture along the Yangtze river basin with up to 1/3 of the water diverted away?
Posted by Gregory Majersky on 11 Jan 2009

I am from HuBei, I felt upset by the Beijing's single action. My beautiful hometown will die for north desert.
Posted by lu on 20 Oct 2009

State media said on Sunday that close to 330,000 people in central China are to be evicted from their homes due to a reservoir being built that will form part of a massive water diversion project.

Zhang Jiyao, head of the project, said that over two-thirds of the people in Hubei and Henan provinces would be relocated to 50 nearby counties and cities.

It was not said where the remaining 100,000 would be placed to make way for the Danjiangkou Reservoir, which is part of the multi-billion-dollar North-South Water Diversion Project.

The project's goal is to bring water from the Yangtze, the nation's largest river, to the parched north of the country, which is plagued by droughts.

Previously, Xinhua said that by 2010, up to one billion cubic meters of water will be diverted to Beijing annually. And I´ve read that the relocation of the 330,000 people is expected to be completed only by the end of 2013.

Posted by Transportadora on 15 Dec 2009

We should bear in mind the fact that these "independent" researchers are being funded by the West.

Posted by MmMm on 02 Nov 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
christina larsonABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christina Larson is a journalist focusing on international environmental issues, based in Beijing and Washington, D.C. Her reporting has brought her to seven provinces across China, as well to Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Greece, and her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, and The Washington Monthly, where she is a contributing editor. In previous articles in this series for Yale e360, she wrote about a Chinese environmentalist's fight to save the Yellow River and a Beijing-based legal aid center for pollution victims.



How China and U.S. Became
Unlikely Partners on Climate

Amid tensions between the U.S. and China, one issue has emerged on which the two nations are finding common ground: climate change. Their recent commitments on controlling emissions have created momentum that could help international climate talks in Paris in December.

What Pope Francis Should Say
In His Upcoming UN Address

Pope Francis will speak to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 25 about poverty, the environment, and sustainable development. In a Yale Environment 360 forum, seven leading thinkers on the environment and religion describe what they would like to hear the pope say.

Will the Paris Climate Talks
Be Too Little and Too Late?

At the upcoming U.N. climate conference, most of the world’s major nations will pledge to make significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. But serious doubts remain as to whether these promised cuts will be nearly enough to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change.

Rachel Carson’s Critics Keep On,
But She Told Truth About DDT

More than half a century after scientist Rachel Carson warned of the dangers of overusing the pesticide DDT, conservative groups continue to vilify her and blame her for a resurgence of malaria. But DDT is still used in many countries where malaria now rages.

Natura 2000: EU Reserves Are
Facing Development Pressures

An astonishing 18 percent of the European Union’s land area is protected under a network of preserves known as Natura 2000. Now, at the urging of business interests and farmers, the EU is examining whether regulations on development in these areas should be loosened.


MORE IN Reports

For Storing Electricity, Utilities
Are Turning to Pumped Hydro

by john roach
High-tech batteries may be garnering the headlines. But utilities from Spain to China are increasingly relying on pumped storage hydroelectricity – first used in the 1890s – to overcome the intermittent nature of wind and solar power.

On Thin Ice: Big Northern Lakes
Are Being Rapidly Transformed

by cheryl katz
As temperatures rise, the world’s iconic northern lakes are undergoing major changes that include swiftly warming waters, diminished ice cover, and outbreaks of harmful algae. Now, a global consortium of scientists is trying to assess the toll.

The Haunting Legacy of
South Africa’s Gold Mines

by mark olalde
Thousands of abandoned gold mines are scattered across South Africa, polluting the water with toxics and filling the air with noxious dust. For the millions of people who live around these derelict sites, the health impacts can be severe.

The Sushi Project: Farming Fish
And Rice in California's Fields

by jacques leslie
Innovative projects in California are using flooded rice fields to rear threatened species of Pacific salmon, mimicking the rich floodplains where juvenile salmon once thrived. This technique also shows promise for growing forage fish, which are increasingly threatened in the wild.

A Delicate Balance: Protecting
Northwest’s Glass Sponge Reefs

by nicola jones
Rare and extensive reefs of glass sponges are found only one place on earth – a stretch of the Pacific Northwest coast. Now, efforts are underway to identify and protect these fragile formations before they are obliterated by fishing vessels that trawl the bottom.

As the Fracking Boom Spreads,
One Watershed Draws the Line

by bruce stutz
After spreading across Pennsylvania, fracking for natural gas has run into government bans in the Delaware River watershed. The basins of the Delaware and nearby Susquehanna River offer a sharp contrast between what happens in places that allow fracking and those that do not.

Will Tidal and Wave Energy
Ever Live Up to Their Potential?

by sophia v. schweitzer
As solar and wind power grow, another renewable energy source with vast potential — the power of tides and waves — continues to lag far behind. But progress is now being made as governments and the private sector step up efforts to bring marine energy into the mainstream.

The Rapid and Startling Decline
Of World’s Vast Boreal Forests

by jim robbins
Scientists are becoming increasingly concerned about the fate of the huge boreal forest that spans from Scandinavia to northern Canada. Unprecedented warming in the region is jeopardizing the future of a critical ecosystem that makes up nearly a third of the earth’s forest cover.

Northern Forests Emerge
As the New Global Tinderbox

by ed struzik
Rapidly rising temperatures, changes in precipitation, and increased lightning strikes are leading to ever-larger wildfires in the northern forests of Alaska, Canada, and Siberia, with potentially severe ecological consequences.

For U.S. Tribes, a Movement to
Revive Native Foods and Lands

by cheryl katz
On ancestral lands, the Fond du Lac band in Minnesota is planting wild rice and restoring wetlands damaged by dams, industry, and logging. Their efforts are part of a growing trend by Native Americans to bring back traditional food sources and heal scarred landscapes.

e360 digest
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

The 2015 Yale e360 Video Contest winner documents a Northeastern town's bitter battle over a wind farm.
Watch the video.


The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

A 2015 Yale e360 Video Contest winner captures stunning images of wild salmon runs in Alaska.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado wildfires
An e360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters confronting deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
Watch the video.


A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.

header image
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.