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Print Edition> Business
UPDATED: June 17, 2011 NO. 25 JUNE 23, 2011
Deficiencies in Water Conservancy
Recent droughts and floods show the fragility of China's water conservancy capabilities

THIRSTY LAND: A dry riverbed of the Danjiang River in Liudong Town of Shiyan, Hubei Province is riddled with cracks. As of June 11, 2011, 54 counties in the province were suffering from droughts (CAO ZHONGHONG)

Be it extreme flooding or severe droughts, China has yet to find a stable middle ground concerning its water supply. These disasters, primarily in the Yangtze River region, reflect China's shortcomings in the construction of water conservancy facilities, said Zheng Fengtian, Vice Dean of School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development of Renmin University of China.

Mounting damages and losses from droughts and floods in the first half of this year illustrate China's weaknesses when confronted with these types of disasters. Financial costs and property damage aside, concerns from the Chinese people and political officials are also increasing, especially as these annual problems intensify on a yearly basis.

Most affected by surges and declines in water supplies is the Yangtze River region, known as the land of fish and rice because of its rich fresh water resources.

The region, however, became a desiccated wasteland from continuous dry weather this spring. This extreme lack of water was briefly alleviated when summer rainstorms began showering the region, which quickly became waterlogged and flooded due to poor drainage systems.

"Besides focusing on these extreme climate conditions, we need to seriously focus on the fact that China's water conservancy systems fall far behind the country's economic and social development," Zheng said.

Zheng has led several investigations into China's obsolete, and in some cases non-existent, irrigation and water conservancy network. The results have been startling: In the past three decades, more than 70 percent of China's 700,000 villages have not invested a single cent in irrigation or water conserving projects.

The Central Government has been quick to react. Earlier this year, the Central Government said, in this year's No.1 document focusing on agriculture, it would invest 2 trillion yuan ($308.17 billion) over the next five years for water conservancy construction projects—investment in the previous five years (2006-10) totaled 700 billion yuan ($107.86 billion). In 2011, investment in this field will reach 400 billion yuan ($61.63 billion).

A crucial cause

China already has an extensive network of water conservancy facilities to prevent droughts and floods. The problem is that most of them don't work, or operate below an effective threshold.

The reasons for this ineffectiveness, Zheng said, involve a near-sighted approach to dealing with excess water, obsolete water control networks and China's current obsession with building dams.

When dealing with floodwaters, China's current priority is drainage rather than storage, Zheng said. In recent years, as the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River experienced unusually rainy weather, facilities drained the waterlogged countryside. The practice is effective in the rainy season, but completely ignores the seasonal balance: If the rainwater is completely diverted out of the region, severe droughts will ensue when cloudless skies and a changed spring climate deposit little precipitation.

China's current network of irrigation and water conservancy facilities are also poorly maintained. Following the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the government engaged in a massive effort across the country to ensure that all localities had effective water conservancy facilities. After the reform and opening up that began in the late 1970s, maintaining these facilities fell to the wayside as funds from the central budget focused on harnessing the power of major rivers, while funds from local governments were mainly earmarked for urban water conservancy projects with high returns. Farmers were also unenthused about irrigation and water conservancy construction because agricultural production generates low returns, leaving farmers with little extra cash on hand for water conservancy facilities.

To top matters off, the country has built a number of hydroelectric power stations on the upper reaches of many of its waterways. But it now makes the country suffer from "big dam syndrome."

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