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Pollution Threatens China’s Ambitious Water-Transfer Project

China’s ambitious South-North Water Transfer Project is in danger of becoming, in effect, a massive sewage transfer project. The vast water diversion scheme—which has been under construction since 2002 and will cost at least $62 billion—is designed to channel water from southern China to the arid north through three vast canal systems. But the central reservoir is badly polluted.

Danjiangkou Reservoir is located in central China’s Hubei province. Construction was completed last year, after 345,000 people living nearby were moved—the largest forced relocation in China since the completion of Three Gorges Dam. The reservoir has a capacity of 1.7 trillion cubic meters, and in 2014, water from Danjiangkou is scheduled to start flowing to Beijing and nearby Tianjin, northern megacities already facing dire water shortages.

Engineering alone won’t solve China’s water-scarcity challenges. On Tuesday, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection acknowledged that the five rivers flowing into the Danjiangkou reservoir are all routinely used as dumping grounds for untreated sewage by local industries. According to state-run Xinhua newswire, the government recently closed some suspected businesses and construction sites near the reservoir.

In July, Cheng Jiagang, vice mayor of Shiyan city, to which Danjiangkou belongs, estimated that 1.3 million tons of sewage were dumped daily into rivers feeding the reservoir. While China’s State Council has set targets for improving water quality in the region by 2015, Cheng expressed skepticism about these goals. “The target is very unlikely to be met, as many pollution-control projects lag behind schedule, due to a fund shortage,” he told Xinhua. Cheng’s remarkable bluntness—unusual for a Chinese politician—is sobering. Beijingers might want to be wary of what comes out their faucets starting next year.

Larson is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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