Severe drought conditions and high water demand in northern China have infused new life into a plan to divert 50B m3 of Yangtze water annually to north China, in order to replenish the Yellow river.

The Yellow river is reported to be drying up due to water being diverted for irrigation and industrial use. Currently, the river only flows into the sea during one-third of the year. If the Yellow becomes an inland river it could turn downstream provinces into desert. Faced with this prospect the Chinese government is considering the Yangtze diversion proposal.

According to a report in the state-owned newspaper, China Daily, the US$30B plan was put on hold in 1995. The project, which is now being seriously considered, would require about six years for completion. Three alternative routes to link the overflowing Yangtze to the Yellow river have been studied, and all three lines have their own difficulties and advantages. The west line would connect the Tongtian, Dadu and Yalong rivers (all tributaries of the Yangtze) to the Yellow river from upper streams on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. On this line, where it is reported that feasibility studies have not been carried out, the Yangtze and Yellow river basins are separated by Mount Bayankala. The water must be lifted via a tunnel through the mountain to provide water to northwest China’s semi-arid areas. Although the quality of water from the west line would be of a very high quality, its construction may be too difficult; involving various technical problems which remain unsolved.

In the middle line the project would entail raising the current Danjiangkou dam on the Hanjiang river in Hubei province to 175m, then building a 1240km long channel, crossing more than 360 rivers, to Beijing and Tianjin. The biggest advantage of the line is the water’s natural flow to the north and the high quality of water. The middle line would transfer water from the central section of the Yangtze in Sichuan or Hubei province.

Preparations for the start of construction of the 1164.2km east line are reported to have begun in Shangdong province. This will lift water from the Yangtze through the Grand Canal to the northern parts of Jiangshu, Anhui and Shandong provinces and then to the north of the Yellow river. Water can easily flow to Tianjin along the east line after an estimated 18B m3 of water is lifted gradually via the Grand Canal from the Yangtze to the Huaihe and Yellow rivers, but water pollution remains a key threat in these areas.