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In a project to enrich one of the country's most densely populated regions a swath of land that includes Beijing and several crucial ports China is launching an enormous endeavor to reroute rivers and carry water from the saturated south to the arid north.
"China is a huge country. It needs a project like this for the long term," Zhang Guoliang of the Ministry of Water Resources, the project's head of planning, told The Associated Press Wednesday. "No matter what happens, it is going to need more water."
The water rerouting is the largest such project in the world comparable to redirecting much of the Mississippi River to cities on the East Coast.
The idea was first proposed in 1952, three years after the communists took power in China. But the problem itself is much older. Water shortages have always plagued China's north, and the south has always been considered the wetter, more lush region.
Full-scale work began Dec. 27, after official approval from China's Cabinet. The project will create three circuitous routes to carry water from southern coastal and interior areas to an area that includes 39 major cities. Some 245 smaller northern cities also will benefit.
The new project will involve an elaborate series of pumping stations and dams, and will use some of China's largest lakes and waterways, including the giant Yangtze and Yellow rivers.
At least 50 million people in northeastern China will benefit directly beginning in 2007, when the first phase is scheduled for completion. Work will continue well past 2025, according to officials.
Though the government is promising to minimize the risk, experts warn that the ecological cost of the project could be significant. Some believe the water will be too polluted to use on crops and in homes as the government wants.
"There's a tendency in China, when there's a big problem, to develop an engineering response. I think it's because some of the leaders have been engineers," Lester R. Brown, president of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute, told The Associated Press.
"I think it's a mistake for them to move ahead," he said. "The costs are going to be prohibitive."
The first two phases alone will cost $15 billion, paid for with government money, loans and higher water prices for business and residential users. The total number of planned phases is not clear.
Surveying for the task has been underway for decades, Zhang said. He said increasing population and decreasing precipitation in northern China during the past 20 years have made the project more necessary than ever before.
Du Yin, an official in charge of rural economic development at the State Development Planning Commission, cited an additional benefit: Higher costs would make people realize that water supplies are finite. "If I have to pay more for my water," Du explained, "I'm going to work harder to save it."
Planners say they will have to relocate about 300,000 people. The amount of water to be transferred each year will be 1.4 trillion cubic feet.
"I think there's almost a political need to demonstrate that the government is doing something important about the water shortages in the north," Brown said. "And as long as there's a project under way, they can say, `Well, we're working on it.'"