The largest canal project since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 began yesterday, aiming to connect the Yangtze River with its biggest tributary, the Han.
Work on the 6.1 billion yuan (HK$6.9 billion), 67.23 kilometre project in Hubei, starting in Jingzhou and ending in Qianjiang , is beginning as the country struggles with its most serious drought in decades. It is expected to be finished in 2014.
The canal is also a part of the ambitious South-North Water Diversion Project, which is designed to channel about 50 billion cubic metres of water a year from the Yangtze River along three routes to quench the thirst of northern regions including Beijing, Tianjin , Hebei and Henan .
The diversion project's 1,276 kilometre central link was originally designed to divert 10 billion cubic metres of water, as much as a third of the annual flow of the Han River, from Hubei's Danjiangkou dam to Beijing in time for 2008 Olympics. However, public concerns delayed its completion until this year.
Environmentalists complained that the water quality of the Han would decline because its self-cleaning capacity would diminish after it lost a third of its flow. The Xiaoxiang Morning Paper, a newspaper under the Hunan provincial government, reported yesterday that another 1.5 billion cubic metres of water would be diverted from the upper reaches of the Han to Shaanxi's Wei River to help ease pollution.
The canal connecting the Yangtze and the Han was compensation for the central link programme and would pour three billion cubic metres of water back to the Han.
The Hubei government also expects the project to boost the local economy, with the 60 metre wide, six metre deep canal capable of carrying ships of up to 1,000 tonnes, China News Service reported.
The canal will also cut more than 600 kilometres off the journey faced by passengers and goods from Jingzhou to Qianjiang, a route presently served by at least four highways and one railway line.
The drought in the normally water resource rich southwest has raised fears that the South-North Water Diversion Project will further worsen such disasters or adversely affect water conservancy projects.
Premier Wen Jiabao , inspecting one of the worst-hit provinces, Yunnan , this week, said that the backward state of water conservancy facilities should be blamed for the damage wrought by the worst drought in a century.
'This disaster has exposed our weakness in infrastructure projects in irrigation,' Wen said. 'With farmers who suffer in the droughts all understanding the importance of water conservancy projects, local officials should learn from the lesson and take this good chance to help them perfect local irrigation facilities.'
Wen also pledged Beijing would put more resources into water conservancy projects to supply more drinking water for people and livestock as well as irrigation water for crops in drought-hit regions.
Members of the State Council said the drought was a temporary phenomenon, which would not affect the long-term goal of the water diversion project.
'First of all, the South-North Water Diversion Project hasn't been implemented yet,' Xinhua quoted Zhang Ye , one of the senior officials overseeing the project, as saying. 'We will divert only 5 per cent of the flow from the Yangtze River every year in the future, which we believe will not bring about any significant impact.'