China turns to drastic measures to avoid water crisis

BEIJING -- If you think water is in short supply in California, you should see what's happening in China. The situation is so dire that next month, the communist government will turn on the taps in the world's biggest water-diversion project.

The Yongding River, which once fed Beijing, ran dry along with 27,000 other rivers in China that have disappeared due to industrialization, dams and drought.

"Some of the large parts of the north China plane may suffer severe water shortages," said environmentalist Ma Jun. "Some of the cities could literally run out of water."

To try to solve the problem, China's government is planning to spend nearly $80 billion to build nearly 2,700 miles of waterways -- almost enough to stretch from New York to Los Angeles.

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View of the cracked bed of the nearly dried-up Qingni River during a drought in Xuchang city.
Imaginechina

Four-fifths of China's fresh water lies in its south. The idea behind the project is to move some of that water to the parched - and populous - north by connecting existing bodies of water. That's meant relocating 350,000 people to settlements.

Zhang Xiaofeng, who was moved to a settlement, was asked if she wanted to come to this place.

"It does not matter if you're willing or not," said Zhang. "We had to move here. If we didn't our home would be under water."

She used to sell jade but now scrapes by selling whatever she can from a small shop in her "relocation village" -- dubbed "Harmony" by the local government.

She walked us through her new home but said she misses her old one. Still, she said, her suffering is worth it for more people to have water. But was she being serious or just being polite?

"As a Chinese citizen we all ought to be like this," answered Zhang. "We can survive anywhere."

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View of the construction site of Danjiangkou Dam Extension Project.
Chen huaping - Imaginechina

Back in Beijing, Ma Jun feels the project is a short-term "emergency measure."

"It will help to buy some time," said Ma Jun. "I wouldn't call this a real final solution because the current volume of transfer will not be enough to fill up the gap."

The water supply for some cities, he fears, may someday run out.