China has approved a multibillion dollar project to pump water from its verdant south to the arid north in a plan that would be China's largest water diversion effort.
State media last week quoted Water Resources Vice Minister Zhang Jiyao saying the construction was ready to begin and an initial segment could be finished by 2005.
``The south-to-north water diversion project is a mega-project that is strategically aimed at realizing the optimal allocation of water resources,'' Zhang was quoted saying in the English-language China Daily.
The project aims to relieve growing demand for water in Beijing and other key northern cities that are home to about half of China's population and important grain growing and industrial regions.
An idea credited to communist China's founder Mao Zedong, the plan would build three massive north-south aqueducts to pump water from the Yangtze, the world's third-largest river. Together, the three channels would pump 48 billion tons of water a year enough to fill New York City's taps for a quarter century, according to a comparison with New York state figures.
In the first phase, Yangtze water will be pumped to parched Shandong province by 2005, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Yangtze water will reach Beijing by 2010, it said.
The scale of the project has raised questions about possible negative effects on the environment, as well as the economic strain it will place on China's developing economy. China says the first two of the three man-made rivers will cost more than $18 billion, while the total expenditure could exceed that of the Three Gorges Dam, which is expected to cost $24 billion.
Illustrating the difficulty of building the third diversion route, which would pass near mountains on the Tibetan plateau, the entire project won't be completed until 2050, China Daily said.
Critics said China's leaders have been too keen to adopt grand, landscape-altering mega-project when smaller scale water works and improved management could solve much of the problem.