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Beijing now drinking from vast water project environmentalists decry

Drinking water is flowing to Beijing from China’s controversial south-north water project – enough to fill 20,000 Olympic-size swimming pools in the first six weeks, the city reported Friday.

But concerns continue to swirl about the project’s environmental and human costs even as Beijing taps into a new water source nearly 800 miles away.

The central route of the south-north water project is China’s largest public works undertaking since the Three Gorges Dam, and it’s similarly contentious. It consists of a 400-foot-wide canal, aqueducts and other water works that stretch 798 miles to Beijing, starting at the Danjiangkou Reservoir in Henan province.

Environmentalists say the water diversions are sure to damage the ecology of the Han and lower Yangtze rivers. Construction of the canal also prompted the forced relocation of 100,000 people.

On Friday, city authorities offered the first report on the project, reporting that roughly 5 million residents of China’s capital have been drinking water from the Han River, a tributary of the mighty Yangtze far to the south of Beijing, since late December.

The update said China started operating the central canal of its $62 billion South-North Water Diversion Project on Dec. 12, with the first water reaching Beijing by Dec. 27.

Since that time, more than 50 million cubic meters of water have been delivered from China’s relatively wet south to its parched northern capital, according to city figures. By the end of May, the city’s current daily consumption of southern water is expected to double as water from the canal fills the city’s reservoirs.

Supporters say the canal, started in 2003, is crucial for easing Beijing’s mounting water crisis. According to city officials, Beijing consumes 3.6 billion cubic meters of water annually – 951 billion gallons – and has far outstretched its groundwater supplies as its population has grown to nearly 22 million. Other cities in the north have drawn so much water from the Yellow River that it seasonally runs dry.

The south-north water project aims to relieve both sources of water, even though many experts say the relief will be brief if the north doesn’t adopt better water management policies.

Last month, the National Academy of Science in the United States published a paper by several water researchers warning that “water stress” in China will only increase without better water pricing and more emphasis on water efficiency and conservation.

“China’s current transfer program is pouring good water after bad: the problems of water-stressed regions aren’t being alleviated and the provinces sharing their water are suffering greatly,” said Dabo Guan, a researcher at the University of East Anglia in England who contributed to the study.

In Henan province, the source of Beijing’s water, hundreds of fishermen at Danjiangkou reservoir are already paying the price. The lake is home to commercial fishing operations for a prized, firm-fleshed fish called culter alburnus. But to protect the water quality in the reservoir, the government has ordered fishermen to start dismantling net cages used to catch the fish. By the end of the year, they need to remove 120,000 net cages from the lake, according to a story Wednesday in the Beijing Youth Daily.

According to Beijing’s government, two of the city’s six water plants are now using “southern water” as their sole source. The other plants are mixing the southern water with domestic water.

“As of Feb. 12, all of the 159 facilities established across Beijing to test the water from the south showed the city’s tap water was meeting national standards,” the city said in a press release.

In coming years, about 9.5 billion cubic meters of water is expected to flow yearly through the canal to Beijing and other cities in the north. By 2030, that annual volume is expected to increase to 13 billion cubic meters.

Although the south-north water project was once hailed as a monumental undertaking, its completion in December was surprisingly low key. Beijing did not hold a public ceremony and there was little coverage from China’s state media, a possible reflection that the government is wary of the project’s long-term costs.

McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.

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