China's water diversion project carries risks

Updated: 2012-09-19 07:01


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WUHAN - As government officials hailed the success of relocating 340,000 people in China's south-north water diversion project Tuesday, they are also aware of the social and environmental challenges the project may bring.

The relocation in central China's provinces of Hubei and Henan is part of the project to transfer clear water from the Han River, a major tributary of the Yangtze River, to the drought-prone north including the capital city of Beijing.

At the start of the route, the height of the Danjiangkou Dam on the Han River has been raised, and the reservoir behind the dam will begin to rise in 2014 so that water will flow all the way to the north.

The project forced 180,000 people in Hubei and 160,000 in Henan to leave their homes around the reservoir. It is China's second largest relocation program after the Three Gorges project, which involved the relocation of 1.27 million people over a period of 17 years.

The immigrants, mostly poor farmers, have moved in to more than 600 government-designed villages across the two provinces within the past three years.

The Hubei provincial government said that the relocation is a miracle in the history of reservoir immigration in China.

Tens of thousands of officials were employed in the relocation program. Among them, 21 -- including nine in Hubei and 12 in Henan -- died from fatigue and illness caused by constant work.

However, the relocation is just the first step of the immigration, said E Jingping, director of the South-North Water Diversion Office of the State Council, China's cabinet. "The goal for the coming years is to keep the immigrants stable, enable them to develop and become rich."

However, discontent exists among immigrants who have found life harder in the new locations, where locals have different dialects and cultures. Added to this, living costs are higher with some houses having defects. Some immigrants are given low-grade farmland to work on and those who grew fruits in hilly regions do not know how to grow rice on a plain.

Living standards are likely to go down for more than a third of the immigrants, Peng Chengbo, vice director of the Hubei Reservoir Immigration Bureau, told Xinhua.

Thousands of immigrants have travelled back to their hometowns to seek redress from governments. Some have barricaded highways, besieged government buildings and beaten immigration officials.

Peng said that local governments were under pressure in maintaining stability in Hubei, where various water projects including the Three Gorges and the water diversion forced a total of three million people to move over the past five decades.

Hubei has plans to help the immigrants to raise their living standards to average levels in the new locations within three years, and in a further two years surpass the average, he added.

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