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Getting water to China’s north

Having a safe and reliable water supply is a prerequisite for longevity. In China’s arid northern region, procuring water has always been a problem. In this week’s Economist, the magazine reports (“A modest proposal“) on some of China’s latest efforts to bring water to this region.

The Chinese have already been hard at work diverting the Yangtze River (or Yangzi, see map) through two huge water diversion projects. More recent proposals include:

  • “Work on a more technologically challenging third route, involving blasting through mountains to link the Yangzi’s upper reaches to the Yellow River, is expected to begin around 2010.”
  • A proposal to “extend the link to the Yalu Zangbu river, as the upper reaches of India’s Brahmaputra river are known in China.” The proposal would divert water “…hundreds of kilometres from Tibet at a cost of tens of billions of dollars”

The Chinese water minister described the second project as “unnecessary, unfeasible and unscientific.” I agree with the Economist’s proposal to use market-based solutions to solve the north’s water problems. Three relatively easy fixes include:

  • Raising water prices to fully fund maintenance and operational expenses
  • Fixing leaky water pipes. China’s water pipes leak at a rate twice that of developed countries.
  • Build more waste-water treatment plants. Around 40% of Chinese cities have no such facilities.

The author of the article wisely notes that since the water industry is a monopoly run by the local governments, raising prices may not improve production efficiency. However, charging consumers prices which reflect the true marginal social cost of their water consumption would lead to more conservation (but possibly more theft of water as well).

If you are interested in helping to provide safe drinking water for the developing world, please take a look at the Global Water website.