Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization - Steven Solomon (2010)

Part IV. The Age of Scarcity

Chapter 16. From Have to Have-Not: Mounting Water Distress in Asia’s Rising Giants

If water famine made the Middle East the world’s most explosive Have-Not region, the global scale and depth of the unfolding water crisis is likely to be influenced heavily by what happened in Asia’s dynamic, but water-distressed giants at the shifting fulcrum of the twenty-first century world order. Comprising nearly two-fifths of humanity, rising economic stars China and India had mobilized their renewable freshwater through giant dams and other modern waterworks to transform their once chronic hunger into sufficiency through the opportunities of the Green Revolution. Along with India’s smaller neighbor on the Indus, Pakistan, they had contributed significantly to the rapid global expansion of irrigated cropland and the spectacular tripling of world grain harvests from 1950 to 2000. Yet worsening water distress from the pressures of demographic and economic growth, and the overexploitation and environmental abuse of their natural ecosystems is causing grain production to peak out in all of them. Unless trends reverse, they may soon lack access to enough clean freshwater to feed themselves. By dint of their sheer size, their domestic responses to their water challenges will powerfully impact economic, environmental, and political conditions worldwide. China and India, together with America, produce half the world’s grain—their combined influence on international food markets is like that of OPEC on oil. The looming prospect of India and China becoming major grain importers therefore threatens to dramatically push up global food prices, crowd out the poorest and most water-famished nations, and help trigger humanitarian tragedies and political upheavals around the world.

China with 1.3 billion inhabitants, and India with 1.1 billion, are the world’s two largest, and the two fastest economically growing, major countries. Their rapid modernization, and rising average individual consumption and waste generation, puts them at the epicenter of the era’s great global tension between breakneck economic development and environmental sustainability. The outcome will help validate or discredit their contrasting and competing development models—India’s multicultural democracy driven by private internal demand and China’s politically authoritarian, state-guided mix of industrial export champions and domestic entrepreneurship—and strongly influence the nature of the political economic order of coming generations.

When it comes to water, the two giants share many characteristics. With 20 percent of the world’s population but only about 7 percent of its freshwater, China’s freshwater resources are stretched thin. The case is similar for India, with 17 percent of world inhabitants and 4 percent of its readily accessible freshwater. Both countries must use their freshwater efficiently to satisfy the demands of their large and increasingly protein-hungry populations. Yet paradoxically, as in most of the world, their water management is riddled with wasteful practices, inadequate infrastructure, inefficient allocations, and environmentally unsustainable uses. Both countries have been world-leading dam builders, although with mixed success to show for it. Both are increasingly reliant on overpumped, diminishing groundwater reserves for their irrigated agriculture and metropolitan water supplies. Both are also compounding their natural water limitations with man-made soil erosion and ruination as well as rampant pollution reminiscent of the preenvironmental and presanitary awakenings in the industrialized West. Neither has a coherent, workable, long-term solution for its impending water crisis, and both are hoping to buy time with grandiose, but environmentally dubious national water transfer schemes.

The World Bank warned in 2005 that India was at the cusp of “an era of severe water scarcity” requiring immediate changes in government management of water. By 2050, water demand is expected to double to a level that exceeded the nation’s entire available supply of freshwater. An ongoing series of environmental woes and flagging wheat and rice production are similarly awakening Chinese leaders to their incipient water scarcity crisis. In 1999, Vice Premier Wen Jiabao acknowledged that looming water supply shortages threatened the very “survival of the Chinese nation”, and in 2005, as premier, he pledged to deliver “clean water for the people.”

India’s modern history was marked by a classic cycle of irrigation intensification that created a population boom that in turn demanded further irrigation merely to keep up with living standards and population growth. British irrigation projects during the colonial era had provided the initial impetus, with India’s population rising steadily from 175 million in 1850 to nearly 300 million in 1900, then nearly quadrupling to 1.1 billion by 2005. The super crops of the Green Revolution and the postwar burst of large irrigation and hydropower dam building embraced after independence by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi in the Punjab and elsewhere initially generated an economic flourish that saved India from chronic, near famine and lifted individual living standards. Yet by the 1970s and 1980s, the boom began to fade under the weight of India’s ballooning population, the dead hand of an ineffective government bureaucracy, and an overregulated private sector. Farm productivity began to sag as delivery of irrigation water by government bureaucracies became unreliable in timing and quantity, and the second generation of government dam building proved decreasingly effective. India became a global poster child advertising that simply having many dams and large-scale water management projects was insufficient to deliver growth—they had to be appropriately designed and administered effectively. Indians began to bemoan their “Hindu rate of growth.”

The multicultural Indian democracy, however, responded with two unexpected developments. A grass roots protest sprung up in the late 1980s that effectively curtailed India’s giant dam, state-dominated era. In September 1989, some 60,000 peasants, environmentalists, and human rights advocates rallied in the Narmada River valley in western India against a massive government irrigation project that included 30 major dams that would disrupt local communities while sending most of the economic benefits far away. The Narmada rebellion was fueled by decades of pent-up discontent with state-dictated giant dam and reservoir projects that had displaced an estimated 20 million people and through poor management ruined large portions of India’s irrigated lands with salinized and waterlogged soils.

Soon after the protests, the World Bank withdrew its financial support from the Narmada River’s centerpiece dam project. Disenchantment with large dams had been growing inside the Bank as well as in the Western-led international environmentalist and development communities. The Bank used the opportunity to support an independent World Dam Commission to assess the efficacy of its entire giant dam program. In late 2000 the commission issued a startlingly harsh condemnation of the development cost-benefits of the $75 billion the Bank had invested in large dam projects in 92 countries: most large dams ended up costing far more, profitably irrigated less cropland, produced less hydroelectric power, and delivered much less water to cities than originally advertised. The overestimated economic returns, moreover, also ignored the social inequities of displacing some 80 million rural people worldwide, the often disproportionate distribution of economic benefits, and the spreading of malaria among the rural poor. Their large impacts on river watersheds and aquatic ecosystems were often deleterious. Indeed, most dam benefits, the commission concluded, could have been achieved without many negative impacts by redirecting funds to decentralized, efficiency-encouraging, often smaller-scale alternatives, including revival of traditional, preindustrial era waterworks. The World Commission on Dams Report was a resounding turning point: The global era of unbridled giant dam building was over. World Bank programs since then demanded demonstrable, broader stakeholder benefits, while nongovernment activists from the industrialized world—where giant dam potentials had long been fully exploited—began to lobby reflexively against almost any giant dam in developing countries whether they had additional capacity for it or not, and for dam removals at home.

In India, the Narmada rebellion contributed to the 1991 economic reform movement led by Manmohan Singh, then finance minister and later prime minister, that liberalized the domestic private sector and transformed the advanced part of India’s economy with startling rapidity. India became the world’s second fastest growing major economy after China, reaching an average 9 percent per year from 2005 to 2007. World-class technology service companies arose and the size of its professional middle class quadrupled. Toward the end of the first decade of the 2000s, India was on the verge of surpassing Japan as the world’s third largest economy. It was emerging as a regional superpower and swing state in the international balance of power and as a potential liberal democratic model for developing countries worldwide.

Yet something was awry. India’s rapid economic transformation was precariously lopsided. In effect there were two Indias: a dynamic private upper tier of modern, high-tech service enterprises driven by a rising urban professional class alongside the three quarters of the population that remained locked in desperate poverty and held back by obsolete water infrastructure, weak governing institutions and unproductive practices, particularly in the rural farming countryside. Indeed, one of India’s most striking aberrations is the abysmally poor productivity of its surface irrigation grain farming—Indian wheat farmers consume twice as much water per ton as their counterparts in America and China and lag behind those in Egypt, for instance. Untimely and unreliable delivery of government-managed water, poor transportation to get crops to market, shockingly small storage capacity despite the country’s plethora of dams, and simple bureaucratic corruption and ineptitude are some of the contributing factors. India’s poor, rural farmers are twice dispossessed: first by being located far from prime water sources occupied by the wealthy and powerful, and second by being last to be served due to the higher cost of transporting water to them. Prime Minister Singh himself declared that India needed a second Green Revolution “so that the specter of food shortages is banished from the horizon once again.” To do that, it needs to reinvent its wobbly water economy.

For millennia, Indians’ lives have been whipsawed year in, year out between the unpredictable cycles of bounty and destruction brought by the torrential monsoons, which concentrates 80 percent of the annual rainfall and runoff into only a few months. A late, small monsoon can mean tragic famine, while a heavy, early one can inundate the countryside with terrible floods and landslides that kill thousands and set armies of climate migrants marching across the landscape. A good and balanced monsoon, on the other hand, waters the crops, replenishes rivers and groundwater and delivers modest prosperity. No single event is more important for India’s economy to the present day than the onset of the monsoon, news of which is urgently transmitted to government offices across the country far and wide.

To cope with the capricious tyranny of the monsoon, Indians over the centuries developed small- and medium-scaled local storage technologies that conserved water for the dry season, including simple water tanks and elaborate stone stepwells as deep as several stories that water fetchers descend step by step as the water level falls lower and lower throughout the dry season. In the British colonial era, traditional storage was superseded by mass industrial age water storage methods and partly forgotten. But industrial age water technologies were never effectively enough applied to be able to fully buffer India from the extreme unpredictability of the monsoons. Thus while Aswan gave Egypt a two-year storage buffer, and America’s Colorado and Australia’s Murray-Darling river system banked two and a half years’ river flow against the uncertainties of their drought-prone environments, dam reservoirs on the Ganges, on whose waters half a billion Indians’ lives depend, store no more than a couple of months’ protection; the Narmada and Krishna rivers stored but four to six months’ flow. As a result of India’s failure to attain its long sought goal of delinking its annual economy from the monsoon, three-quarters of Indian society still suffers from the persistent poverty of unreliable water management and occasional buffeting from devastating water shocks.

India’s failure to provide adequate storage, flood protection, and delivery of clean freshwater is driving the nation to perilously overdraw its national store of groundwater. From the 1980s, when government investment in irrigation virtually ceased, Indian private enterprise had on its own impressively continued to expand domestic water supply. Finally given access to reliable irrigation water, farmers’ food production surged—cereals’ output more than doubled between 1968 and 1998. But it did so through a ferocious, unregulated, and ultimately unsustainable pumping of groundwater from India’s shallow, depleted aquifers and lavish water consumption, both exacerbated by government farm electricity subsidies that made pumping water virtually free. In 1975, before groundwater pumping became significant, India had about 800,000 wells. Most were shallow and dug by hand, with water lifted in the traditional manner by tethered oxen. Only a quarter century later, the nation had an estimated 22 million wells. The majority were small tube wells that had been drilled by power rigs, operating off of government electricity subsidies. They are continuing to increase phenomenally, by about 1 million each year.

Yet each new well has to be drilled ever deeper than the last because water tables throughout India are falling sharply. Through unregulated drilling and pumping, India’s private water sector is effectively racing against itself toward each aquifer’s bottom. The best financed, deepest wells get the water; the Have-Nots who can afford only shallow wells get the dregs, or go dry. In India’s breadbaskets of Punjab and Haryana, for example, the water tables are falling over three feet per year; monitored wells in the western state of Gujarat show a fall in the water table from 50 feet to over 1,300 feet in thirty years. Southern India, an altogether separate geographic zone, is already effectively dry. As a nation, it amounts to a slow-motion act of hydrological suicide.

In the twenty-first century, India relies on groundwater mining for more than half its irrigation water. No other nation in the world pumps nearly as great a volume of groundwater. By some estimates, water is being mined twice as fast as natural recharge. Food produced from depleting groundwater is tantamount to an unsustainable food bubble—it will burst when the waters tap out. One warning occurred in 2006 when, for the first time in many years, India was forced to import large quantities of wheat for its grain stockpile. As the water tables hit bottom, clashes were breaking out between food producers and industrial and domestic users. In 2003 both Coca-Cola and Pepsi bottling plants in southern India were scapegoated and had their licenses revoked on unproven accusations that they were responsible for the region’s exhausted groundwater reserves. Elsewhere, textile plants have been forced to shut down, and information technology companies have moved away from Bangalore, over water shortages and undependable supplies.

Geographically, India is blessed with enough arable land, sunshine, and total quantities of water, even for its huge population. Notwithstanding its current plight, it still has significant potential to expand its irrigable cropland, hydropower, storage, and food production. It is a prime example of a nation that with stronger institutions and better water resource management would be in a position to feed itself for years to come, even without a new Green Revolution. Since India accounts for such a large share of global irrigation, even a small productivity improvement would leverage a significant betterment of food conditions on world markets. Yet there is no easy political blueprint for rooting out India’s embedded inefficiencies, ineffectual bureaucratic culture and distorted incentives, or for undertaking the many public waterworks that are needed. If the government suddenly eliminates farmers’ electricity subsidies to slow the uncontrolled overpumping of groundwater, for example, it is likely that farm failures would soar and tens of millions of Indians face imminent famine.

Yet the subsidies have become so perverse that many farmers no longer bother to grow crops with the precious freshwater they pump up. Instead, they simply sell it to fleets of private water tankers carrying 3,000 gallons apiece that come a dozen times each day to transport it at a tidy profit to India’s desperately thirsty and unsanitary cities. A large percentage of urban dwellers are not even connected to India’s dilapidated municipal water delivery systems, which commonly lose 40 percent of their supply to leakage, waste, and piracy. For those who are connected, the taps often turn on for only a few hours each day. In New Delhi, with 15 million inhabitants, an Indian government report from 2006 found that one-quarter of households lacked access to piped water, and of those that had it, over one in four got water for less than three hours per day. Nearly 2 million households had no toilets. Upscale neighborhoods typically are the best connected with the best service, while the slums go wanting. Because the charge for municipal water is often less than one-tenth of actual provision costs, the water poor are effectively subsidizing the wealthy with good water connections. Most urban water is unmetered—in some places newly installed meters broke down because they required 24-hour water pressure to function properly—undermining efforts to substitute physical volume rationing for more efficient and equitable regulation by price and measured usage.

To get their daily water, Indian city dwellers—mainly the women—have to be resourceful foragers. To supplement what can be obtained from the public tap, water is purchased from private tankers and drawn from legal and illegal wells drilled in apartment blocks. For Ritu Praser, a middle-aged resident of a middle-class New Delhi neighborhood, every day involves planning to obtain enough water for her family: On the typical day when the municipal service doesn’t deliver enough water, she dials the private water tanker on her cell phone, then waits for its arrival. In the meantime she draws what water she can from her apartment block’s self-financed, courtyard tube well. The quality of the apartment tube well water is increasingly salty as the aquifer under New Delhi is running dry from overpumping. To get through the day she recycles what water she can, using leftover laundry water to mop the balcony, for instance. In an average month, she gets only 13 gallons from the municipal pipes and 243 gallons from water tankers.

Across India as a whole, three-fifths of households, or over 650 million people, do not have tap water as their primary drinking source. India’s sanitation is even more abysmal. Some two-thirds of the population, 700 million people, lack indoor toilets of any kind. Less than 10 percent of urban sewage is treated. Not surprisingly, raw sewage chokes the nation’s fabled rivers, from the Ganges to the Yamuna at Agra, with noxious filth and pollution. Such rivers are the drinking source for hundreds of millions of Indians, and the source of immeasurable sickliness and child mortality. An appalling two-thirds of India’s total available surface and ground water supply is polluted with agricultural pesticide and fertilizer runoff, industrial discharges, and urban waste. It is a testament to the depth of the public bureaucracy’s apathetic ineptitude on pollution cleanup and that a full quarter century after the infamous 1984 poison gas leak from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, the undisposed toxic storage is still seeping into the local groundwater to poison a second generation of residents.

The time bomb of India’s mounting water crisis is all the more insidious because it is ticking down unheard and unseen by the public hundreds of feet underground in the falling water tables as well as high atop the fast-melting Himalayan glaciers that are the ultimate source of its great rivers. Due to global warming the Gangotri glacier, an important source of the sacred, but unpredictable and irregular Ganges with perilously little man-made reservoir storage, is shrinking by 120 feet per year and twice as fast as in the 1980s. Glaciers and snowpacks are nature’s mountain reservoirs; they accumulate in the cold months and release their precious water to recharge river flows and groundwater tables when they melt in the warm season. By disrupting the glaciers’ formation and melt cycles, global warming reduces available water volumes and exacerbates seasonal water mismatches—larger flooding in the wet season and worse drought in the dry months.

A similar, rapid shrinking is taking place on Himalayan glaciers across the entire Tibetan plateau, threatening the fate of Asia’s greatest rivers—Indus, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Mekong, Salween, Irrawaddy, Yangtze, and the Yellow—along which live 1.5 billion people and whose waters provide the basic food and energy for most of Asia. The nations most affected hardly understood the dynamics of what was going on in the mountain ranges high above them and hadn’t ever discussed the problem together until the World Bank sponsored a round of informal dialogues starting in 2006 in Abu Dhabi. The global climate change impact is predicted to hit especially early and severely on hot India—causing up to a one-third fall in agricultural output by 2080.

The impact of accelerated glacier melt looms perilously over the Indus River, which depends far more than the Ganges on melting snows to supply the waters that make the Punjab one of the world’s most intensively irrigated regions of the world and an irreplaceable, stabilizing food lifeline of both nuclear-armed Hindu India and its crowded, and also nuclear-armed Muslim neighbor and rival, Pakistan. The 1,800-mile-long Indus rises in the Himalayan glaciers and gathers flow from tributaries in India and in hotly disputed Kashmir, which has been the object of two of the three wars between India and Pakistan. In Pakistan, the former mainstay of the ancient Indus Valley civilization flows through the Punjab’s dense matrix of irrigation canals, and then southward into the Sindh, before fanning out through its delta and emptying into the Arabian Sea. The Indus is not a giant river by streamflow—it is roughly one and a half times the size of the Nile and plays a role of nearly parallel importance to Pakistan as the Nile does for Egypt. Not coincidentally, Pakistan’s population at nearly 160 million is twice that of Egypt’s, and both countries are suffering from similar water resource scarcity. Indeed, Pakistan’s demographic burden has risen even faster than Egypt’s, with its population having more than quintupled from 1947 to become the world’s sixth largest. Pakistan is projected to have 225 million inhabitants by 2025—and possibly will be in the throes of a full-fledged water crisis.

Like the Nile, the Indus is badly overdrawn through trying to keep pace with rising Pakistani food demand. So much water is diverted upstream that the river carries no freshwater at all for its last 80 miles; its once-fertile, creek-filled delta of rice paddies, fisheries, and wildlife has become a desolate wasteland overrun by salty Arabian Sea water for want of outflow. Despite its growing scarcity, Pakistan’s water is poorly managed—much is allocated to growing water-thirsty crops to support local industries like cotton textiles and to politically favored regions and is delivered through infrastructure that is inadequate to the nation’s needs. The Indus basin’s storage buffer is alarmingly precarious—a scant thirty days’ capacity protects its crops against the caprice of a drought. At the same time, the extensively dammed and irrigated Punjab faces some of the worst soil salinization in the world. Starting in the 1960s with liberal financial aid from the United States that viewed it as a key strategic partner, Pakistan began sinking thousands of tube wells to pump out fresh irrigation water and lower water tables that threatened to salinize crop roots. When financial aid dried up in the 1990s, however, salinization began destroying huge swathes of Punjabi cropland, which is now in dire need of a modernized drainage system.

Water scarcity is also one of the big political forces rending Pakistan apart internally. As water runs short, the southern Sindhis are bitterly complaining that the traditional political and military Punjabi establishment is robbing an unfair share of the scarce water resources for irrigation schemes in the Punjab. Water scarcity and contamination is so acute in the southern port city of Karachi that residents routinely boil their water; water rioting, and deaths, are unexceptional. The water divisions are reflected in the internal ethnic strife and national political party divides, with the aggrieved Sindhi south being the stronghold of the party represented by the late Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December 2007. As Pakistan’s available freshwater fails to keep up with the demands of its burgeoning population, it is not at all evident that the tumultuous state will not start to fissure and fail. Indeed, in April 2009 Taliban militants broke out of rugged, northwest Pakistan and overran the pivotal Buner district—putting them less than 25 miles away from gaining control over the giant Tarbela Dam on the Indus, and with it, a strategic chokehold over central Pakistan’s electricity and irrigation waters.

As Pakistan’s water-scarcity problems intensify, the Indus is again becoming a rising source of potential confrontation with India. The original international boundaries of the postwar divorce between Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India had sliced through the Indus river basin with no regard for its organic hydrological unity—a common problem in many shared international watersheds formerly under European colonial rule. Conflicts over the main tributary rivers of the basin broke out immediately. In 1948, the two states came to the brink of war when India’s East Punjab halted the flow of water through two large canals that fed crops on Pakistan’s side of the border in a bid to demonstrate its sovereignty over the river. Protracted diplomacy by the World Bank, which then held the key to vital international finance, finally produced the 1960 Indus Water Treaty. Yet the treaty was a minimalist compromise—each side got privileged water rights over three of the six Indus tributaries—rather than the sort of joint basin management agreement that could increase overall water resources through mutual, cooperative development. Although the treaty has held for half a century, including through subsequent Indo-Pakistani wars, a close call in 1999, and ongoing violence in Kashmir, the Indus remains a contentious fuse that can easily ignite again.

With India’s population expected to swell by another third to 1.5 billion by 2050, Indian leaders know they need to act swiftly to avert an imminent water crisis. Two main policy paths beckon in the nation’s race between economic growth and environmental sustainability: On the one side, India can strive to improve the efficient use of its existing water supply by undertaking the politically painstaking reform of the underdeveloped three-quarters of its economy through gradual elimination of distorting subsidies, rooting out bureaucratic corruption, and introducing new incentives to build small-scale, local storage and other water facilities whose benefits will accrete slowly. Given the political difficulty, and possible explosiveness, of such reforms, and the high uncertainty of success, it is not surprising that many Indian leaders are tempted by the second path of pursuing a grandiose water project that promises to deliver massive new water resources at once. A favored scheme is to build a nationwide plumbing network that interlinks all the nation’s main rivers. At the single turn of a few valves by water technocrats all of India’s seasonal and regional water disparities, all its extremes between flood and drought, and all the fierce court battles between federal states over water supplies, can be rationally evened out—at least in theory. Environmentalists have decried the idea as another facile, gargantuan, hard-technology folly of oversold benefits and underestimated deleterious ecosystem and human impacts. Yet even if it can be built and does work as advertised, at best it merely buys time for an uncertain, more lasting technological miracle, like Prime Minister Singh’s wished-for new Green Revolution, to bail India out from not facing up to the underlying structural causes of its impending water crisis.

India’s dream of linking its river systems is already becoming a reality for its booming Asian neighbor, China. In 2001, China launched the first phase of an epic, national river plumbing scheme to try to cope with its own daunting water scarcity challenge. With one-fifth of mankind inhabiting its borders, China faces perhaps the world’s most titanic clash between rapid economic modernization and environmental sustainability. Among its many severe environmental degradations, China is running perilously short of available clean freshwater. By about 2030 its supply will run out in vital regions of the country, and its national shortfall will be equal to its total usage in 2008. Increasingly, top leaders are acknowledging that the water scarcity crisis is a primary threat to China’s breakneck drive for first world living standards and its capacity to maintain social and political order by fulfilling the elevated expectations of 1.3 billion Chinese.

China’s freshwater scarcity is more distressed than its overall population–water resource ratio suggests because much of its water is not easily accessible where or when it is most needed. Overall, China ranks a lowly 122nd among nations in per capita water use; the average Chinaman makes do with only about one-third the world average. Yet this masks China’s hydrological mismatch between its wet south and its water-starved north, where Chinese citizens use a scant one-tenth of the world’s average and face a steadily worsening water famine. A half century of intensive industrialization and urbanization, moreover, is also depleting the quality of available supply throughout the country with extreme water pollution. While China’s economic consumption and waste levels are soaring toward first world levels, in short, its water ecosystem management and waste disposal infrastructure remain irredeemably third world.

After decades of increased agricultural output from the horrific low point of the 1959–1961 famines under state farm ownership in which 35 to 50 million died, China’s grain production peaked out in the late 1990s and declined by 10 percent through 2005, forcing China to import large quantities of grain to rebuild its national reserve stocks. Without significantly more clean freshwater and improved land conditions, China is staring at the prospect of running critically short of grain and being compelled to use its growing wealth to outbid poorer, hungry nations for food exports grown in water surplus countries. Making matters worse is that Chinese water demand is soaring to feed the transition of newly prosperous Chinese from subsistence, low-water-consuming, vegetarian-based diets to high-water, meat-enriched ones. In the last quarter century, average individual meat consumption increased two and a half times—along with soaring water consumption to produce it. As Chinese prosperity continues to spread, so will the nation’s soaring demand for water.

China’s stupendous South-to-North Water Diversion Project to convey rivers of water across the breadth of China’s vast landscape, is intended to alleviate northern China’s immediate crisis. In effect, it is a modern iteration, writ bolder, of the historic Grand Canal: Yet whereas the Grand Canal of China’s medieval golden age had bridged the nation’s south-north hydrological divide and sustained water-distressed Beijing and the north with shipments of surplus southern rice—virtual water—the twenty-first-century challenge of meeting the needs of dense urban populations, giant factories, and intensively irrigated agriculture demands the direct delivery of indispensable freshwater itself.

Like the Grand Canal, the South-to-North Water Diversion Project is a large expression of China’s traditional Confucian outlook to harness and conquer nature to serve the sovereign vision of the public good. No nation in the postwar era has been as relentless as China in launching immense waterworks projects. Indeed, Mao Zedong’s communist government and its market-reformist successors were uniformly super-Confucian in their determination to mold and transform nature with the powerful industrial technologies of the age. The extensive buildings they wrought were reminiscent of the stunning construction bursts of previous Chinese dynastic restorations. In only half a century, they erected 85,000 dams, one-fourth of them giants—over four dams every day—providing irrigation, flood control, hydroelectricity, and seasonal storage capacity across a country that had little. Rivers were pinched by long levees; projects on the Yellow River alone used enough concrete to build 13 Great Walls. Overall water use quintupled; urban water supplies multiplied a hundredfold. Irrigation intensified and spread to many poor, rain-fed regions for the first time. Industrial use likewise expanded at big water-using steel mills, petrochemical plants, smelters, paper factories, and coal mines, and for cooling fossil-fuel-powered electric plants that soon dotted its riversides and lakes. If the human costs seemed high—Chinese officials themselves estimated that 23 million people had been dislocated in the dam-building frenzy, while critics placed the true number at 40 to 60 million—it was culturally consistent with China’s forced-labor traditions and facilitated China’s remarkable social feat of more than doubling its population while unleashing, especially since its 1978 market-oriented reforms, one of world history’s most spectacular bursts of wealth creation and increased standards of living.

Chairman Mao, emulating the role of China’s founder, Yu the Great, had instilled the spirit of China’s new water age when, upon climbing up a small earthen dam at the Yellow River during first full inspection of the country in 1952, he wondered suggestively how China could better harness the power of the great river for economic development. Within three years the Mother River that gave birth to Chinese civilization was being grandiosely replumbed according to a plan that featured a staircase of dams and 46 hydroelectric power plants. A 60-foot-tall statute of Yu stands approvingly near the giant dam at Sanmenxia in the heart of ancient China, on which is inscribed the old Chinese adage: “When the Yellow River is at peace, China is at peace.”

Yet right from the start the silty, unpredictable Yellow River showed it was not going to easily submit its sobriquet “China’s Sorrow” to the commands of modern engineers and central planners. The signature project that was to glorify the Maoist “people’s victory” over the Yellow was the Sanmenxia Dam at Three Gate gorge, the last gorge in the plateau of soft, loess soil before the river enters the northern plain of China’s wheat and millet breadbasket. Yet as soon as its giant reservoir began filling in 1960, the tragic flaw in the dam’s design became evident. Thick silt filled it to the brim in only two years, flooding tributary rivers upstream and threatening a catastrophic cascade downstream if the rising waters toppled the dam. Fearing the obliteration of populous cities, and the young communist state’s legitimacy with it, Mao indicated his readiness to destroy the dam by aerial bombardment if no other way to solve the siltation problem was found. Perseverant reengineering and a decade of hard reconstruction ultimately saved the dam. But in the end it was only a shadow of its intended magnificence—a reservoir only 5 percent of its original planned size, with corresponding limitations on its capacity to provide electricity and irrigation.

By that time, a new and even more alarming environmental side effect of China’s massive hydraulic engineering of the Yellow became visible. The great, fickle river known for its devastating floods and drastic changes of course began to dry up. The phenomenon was first observed in the summer of 1972, when startled staff at a water measuring station near the river’s mouth saw a dry, cracking riverbed that no longer carried any water to the Bo Hai gulf. The average length of the dry area grew steadily from about 80 miles in the 1970s to a peak of about 440 miles in 1995. In 1997 the river failed to reach the sea for seven and a half months, much of its last trickles disappearing into the river sand bed near the inland ancient capital of Kaifeng.

The river’s failure to reach the important coastal farming province of Shandong during the growing season caused much of the region’s wheat crop to shrivel and die. The alarmed Beijing government decided that, henceforth, diversions from the river would be rationed so that some water always flowed to the sea. Like America’s Colorado and the Egyptian Nile, the Yellow had become a totally managed river, with electronic maps, real time hydrological readings, and political measurement of every withdrawal. From 1999, the Yellow River never ran dry. But its fundamental problem has not been solved: There is simply not enough water to serve all the competing interests—farms, factories, cities, and natural ecosystems—that depend upon it. The river has effectively tapped out. In 2000, a mini water war erupted in Shandong when thousands of farmers, irate over their inadequate allocation of Yellow River water, illegally tapped reservoir water earmarked for cities. One policeman died and hundreds of farmers were injured when the authorities moved in to cut off the illicit siphoning.

To compensate for the growing scarcity of Yellow River water, northern Chinese intensified extraction of the only readily available alternative—the large aquifers lying under the north China plain. One aquifer is near the surface and replenishes with rainfall and seasonal runoff; the other lies in a vault of rock and sediment deep beneath it, and is comprised of nonrenewable, ancient fossil water like that in the Sahara and Ogallala aquifers. As Yellow River basin water resources dwindled from overuse, thirsty Chinese on the northern plain began punching through the shallow aquifer and drilling increasingly deeper into the fossil aquifer for water. Extending from the mountains around Beijing in the north, to the Yellow’s central loess plateaus, the flat north China plain produces half of China’s wheat and a third of its corn and is as vital to the nation’s food security as Iowa and Kansas farming is to the United States. Although the plain has little reliable rainfall, and is prone to harsh extremes of heat, cold, drought and winds, its fertile soil yields abundant crops when irrigated. Once rich in surface streams, swamps and springs, with fast replenishing, subsurface water deposits often found only eight feet underground, the north China plain ecosystem is drying out rapidly both from secular climate change and overuse by man. As in India, groundwater overpumping is causing the water tables across the plain to plunge. It is not uncommon for well pumps to have to go 200 feet to strike freshwater. Because contamination from urban, industrial, coal-mining, and farm waste has polluted three-quarters of the region’s aquifers, metropolitan areas often have to drill three times deeper than that to obtain enough clean drinking water.

Around water-short Beijing, some wells reach half a mile deep into the fossil aquifer. The city’s famous reservoir was declared unfit for drinking in 1997, while a large freshwater lake in the plains to the south shrank by two-fifths between the 1950s and 2000. Beijing is running so alarmingly short of water—the septupling of its population to 14 million in the postwar era has simply outstripped the capacity of its assiduously expanded water supply system—that officials have jocularly suggested the capital will eventually have to move to southern China where water is more plentiful.

In total, roughly half the accessible, nonrenewable water was pumped out of the north’s huge aquifer in the second half of the twentieth century. Unless new supplies are found, or radical adjustments made, the bottom will be hit around 2035; some localities could run dry fifteen years before that. With four-fifths of China’s wheat crop dependent on irrigation water, the nation’s food bubble, and parallel bubbles in urban and industrial expansions that are being unsustainably inflated by overpumping, are in peril of popping.

China’s impending water crisis could strike even sooner because north China’s microenvironment is becoming gravely parched from other unintended side effects of Yellow River basin engineering. The loss of naturally restorative streamflow due to damming and irrigation diversions, extensive wetlands drainage, deforestation, and grasslands clearance for farming, proliferation of open pit coal mining from the 1990s, and the ravenous groundwater pumping, has combined to create one of the world’s most acute crises of soil erosion—itself one of the greatest, though little publicized, water-related environmental challenges of the twenty-first century.

Half the lakes and a third of the grasslands surrounding the Yellow River’s source in the Tibetan plateau have vanished. In the severely deforested middle reaches of the Yellow River, some 70 percent of fertile loess plateau soil has eroded away. Desertification is invading north China. Besieging desert sands have replaced the ancient barbarian hordes as the chief menace at the perimeter of China’s Great Wall. In a single decade from the mid-1990s some 15 percent of all the region’s potential new cropland was destroyed. Mongolian Genghis Khan’s memorial tomb, originally emplaced in a beautiful plateau landscape of lake-filled grasslands, now stands nakedly alone amid barren sands. Great dust storms, like those that ravaged America’s High Plains in the 1930s, increasingly now choke the skies of Beijing and kill scores of Chinese—China’s leaders have been replanting a “green wall” of trees to try to shield the capital. The precious topsoil that China needs to grow the food crops for its next generation is being swept away in whirlwinds and sprinkled eastward over Korea, Japan, and even across the Pacific Ocean on to western Canada. Often the dust mixes with thick clouds of sooty, polluted air that drifts hundreds of miles to drop black blotches on car windshields in Beijing when it rains. The desiccation of northern China, in turn, intensifies regional droughts. The net effect is a significant reduction in total moisture throughout the Yellow River basin and the peaking out of the grain harvest from the late 1990s.

In their massive reengineering of the Yellow River, postwar China’s master architects had not fully accounted for their own industrial age power to disturb the complex dynamics and restorative health needs of a total ecosystem. One of the more bizarre mutations of nature they created was that China’s Mother River today flows through north China within hundreds of miles of flood dikes and embankments at an altitude of several yards above the surrounding landscape, like some kind of Roman aqueduct or elevated train trestle. Thanks to the ongoing accumulation of silt trapped within its dikes, the bed of the suspended river is rising by about three feet every decade and dikes have to be built higher and higher to keep it in its bed. A vigorous debate rages whether Chinese engineers have struck a Faustian bargain with nature to avert smaller, regular floods today in exchange for a potentially catastrophic, dike-smashing, super cascade caused by a sudden water-and-silt surge in the future.

China’s second great river basin is the Yangtze in the rainy south, where the historical problem wasn’t scarcity but water excess. It too has been massively reengineered by government central planners—and likewise is suffering serious degradations from the abuse of its ecosystem. As he had with the Yellow, Mao personally spurred the engineering boom when he inspected the river in 1953 and scolded water managers for the timidity of their plans to control the river’s infamous floods. The building ultimately produced storage reservoirs with 13 times more capacity than on the Yellow and the world’s largest—and most controversial—giant dam at Three Gorges. Building a dam at Three Gorges that could put an end once and for all to the terrible Yangtze floods had been a dream early in the century of China’s modern founder, Sun Yat-sen. In his nationally celebrated 1956 poem “Swimming,” Mao famously extolled his own vision for a dam that would “hold back Wushan Mountain’s clouds and rain, till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges.” Despite Mao’s support, the Three Gorges Dam was much delayed, and in 1984 the project appeared to be shelved forever when a government review recommended against it. And but for China’s massacre of prodemocracy Chinese protesters at Tiananmen Square in June 1989, it might have stayed there.

China’s stunning transformation into the world’s fastest-growing large power had been launched with the successful 1978 reforms of post-Mao leader Deng Xiaoping to enhance administrative efficiency and accelerate economic growth through controlled injection of market forces and some decentralization of political decision making. Many Westerners had hoped that Deng’s liberalizing reforms would lead China toward a liberal, Western-style democracy—despite Deng’s own disavowal of any such intentions. These hopes were violently crushed at Tiananmen Square. China’s hard-line leaders took umbrage at the world’s smoldering condemnations. To show their nationalistic defiance and unyielding commitment to China’s authoritarian, state-managed market system, they soon resuscitated the Three Gorges project—and imprisoned the dam’s domestic critics. Three Gorges was to stand not simply as a dam, but as a crowning showcase of the prowess, wealth, rising world-class status, and unalterable independence of the new China. They hailed it as their civilization’s greatest engineering project since the Great Wall.

There had always been little doubt that Three Gorges would transform the Yangtze as thoroughly as the Aswan Dam reshaped the Nile and Egyptian society. Deng’s 1978 reforms had done nothing to alter China’s traditional attitude toward water management, and when the dam officially opened in 2006 its extraordinary effort to command nature was on full display: it was an impressive 600 feet high and a mile and a half across, with multitiered ship locks and a nearly 400-mile-long reservoir. If 1.4 million people had been involuntarily relocated in its building, its purported greater good to China was that it promised to control floods on the Yangtze, enhance navigation, generate more electricity than any other dam in the world, and serve as the linchpin for a dozen more hydropower megabases upriver that would begin to fulfill China’s master plan to triple the nation’s hydropower by 2020 and wean it away from its extreme dependency on nonrenewable, dirty coal.

Given the dam’s legacy, activists in China’s sprouting, broadly based environmental movement were astonished a year later, in September 2007, to hear the senior government official responsible for the dam break a long-standing taboo and not only confess, but publicly warn that Three Gorges posed “hidden dangers” that could cause a “huge disaster…if steps are not taken promptly.” He added that China cannot win “economic prosperity at the cost of the environment.” Speculation that he may have spoken out of turn was erased the next day when the government news agency itself covered the event with the headline “China Warns of Environmental ‘Catastrophe’ from Three Gorges Dam.”

Among the litany of worries voiced by dam critics had been severe water pollution, landslides, riverbank collapses, larger earthquakes in a fragile, fault-prone region, flooding and shipping problems upstream, and crippled hydropower potential from heavy silt buildup in the reservoir. Indeed, the warning signs that things were amiss at the dam had been accruing as the reservoir started to fill. Rising water pressure and seepage had caused scores of landslides upstream and on tributaries, killing dozens of farmers and fishermen in mudslides and the 165-foot-high waves heaved up by the crashing mud. Upstream water quality also had deteriorated because the dam impeded the dispersal of industrial pollutants and urban sewage, contaminating the drinking water of tens of thousands and threatening to turn the dam’s reservoir into a giant cesspool. Freshwater shortages turned up in Shanghai at the river’s mouth because the decreased flow in the dammed river was no longer able to offset the force of the tidal inflows from the East China Sea; the metropolis’s tap water became foul-smelling and yellowish with Yangtze pollution. Two weeks after the government warning about Three Gorges, it announced that an additional 3 to 4 million people would have to be relocated due to the pollution and landside threats. A few months later, dozens of ships became stranded in a stretch of Yangtze waterway as the river recorded its lowest level in a century and a half.

Even before the opening of Three Gorges Dam, China’s engineers of the Yangtze had witnessed distressing side effects of their handiwork. Despite the river’s reduced streamflow, terrible floods in 1998 had killed thousands. Deforestation, soil erosion and greater siltation upriver, and the draining of water-absorbing wetlands downriver had combined to create a new type of flood risk on the river. Their dreaded nightmare was a major earthquake in the active fault zone around Three Gorges—possibly made catastrophic by the sheer pressure from the water’s weight in its own reservoir. The tragic, 7.9 magnitude quake of May 2008 in Sichuan province near Dujiangyan, site of Li Bing’s famous third century BC Min River diversion and irrigation works, that killed 80,000, extensively damaged 400 dams and compelled the draining of the giant, 50-story-tall Zipingpu dam reservoir, only 3.5 miles from the quake’s epicenter, might have been a catastrophe beyond imagining had it struck instead 350 miles west at Three Gorges. Indeed, many scientists contended that the anomalously extreme size of the 2008 quake itself may have been caused by geological pressure from the 320 million tons of water in the Zipingpu reservoir—a charge strenuously denied by the government, which also blocked websites suggesting that ongoing giant reservoir-building in the region might be putting inhabitants in jeopardy.

The government’s public warning about Three Gorges reflected a deepening concern among China’s post-Tiananmen leaders of the severity of the environmental danger imperiling China’s future—and their own credibility to govern as public anger boiled with each deadly ecological disaster. Just a few months earlier, in June 2007, some 10,000 middle-class environmental protesters had taken to the streets against the construction of a new chemical plant in the coastal city of Xiamen. This followed the angry national headlines in May that the nation’s third largest lake and famous national beauty spot, Lake Tai, on the lower Yangtze delta near a branch of the Grand Canal, had suddenly erupted with fetid, fluorescent green toxic cynobacteria—pond scum—depriving more than 2 million local residents of potable drinking and cooking water.

The pollution outbreak at Lake Tai had been building for decades as irrigation and flood works reduced the lake’s circulation of cleansing, oxygenating freshwater. From the 1980s, some 2,800 chemical plants also proliferated along the transport canals around the lake, which provided both the large volumes of water they needed for processing and discharge and for shipping the end products to the industrial port of Shanghai downstream. Local officials had encouraged the chemical plants to locate around the lake because their taxes provided four-fifths of local government revenue. Although reports of the extensive pollution they were causing had reached China’s top leaders as early as 2001, local political resistance and chemical company cover-ups had kept the national inspectors at bay. A lone, dogged private environmental whistle-blower lost his job and in 2006, after further agitation, was arrested on dubious charges. He was still in prison—and became an instant national hero—when the toxic combination of chemical waste, untreated sewage, fertilizer runoff, and lack of rainfall finally exploded in the lake with oxygen-choking cynobacteria bloom. Within six months the central government enacted antipollution measures and promised to restore China’s major lakes to their original pristine states by 2030.

By the early twenty-first century, pollution has reached epidemic proportions throughout China, and is seriously exacerbating the nation’s natural water shortages. Over half the freshwater in the nation’s major river systems and lakes, and a third of its groundwater, is unfit for human consumption. Two in three major cities suffer serious water shortages. Only one-fifth of wastewater is treated compared to about four-fifths in first world nations. Electricity generation at power plants is sometimes curtailed for want of adequate river volumes, which likewise forces temporary factory production halts at big water users like petrochemical plants, smelters, and paper mills. To keep up with demand, reliance on groundwater has doubled since 1970 to constitute one-fifth of the national supply. By the government’s own admission, one-third of its land is severely degraded due to water loss, soil erosion, salinization, and desertification. In 2007, the World Bank concluded that some 750,000 Chinese were dying prematurely each year from the nation’s water and air pollution, but acceded to Chinese official requests to excise that finding from the final report for fear that it might stir domestic unrest.

Upon ascending to power after 2000, in fact, China’s post-Tiananmen leadership has tried to nudge the country’s economic system toward a more environmentally sustainable path. One public initiative, launched in 2004 by President Hu Jintao, attempted to modify China’s obsessive growth culture with a new Green GDP calculation that imputed the negative growth costs of environmental degradation in each province. Hu’s Green GDP report, however, was issued just once. It met strong political resistance from provincial leaders, who had been empowered under the 1978 reforms and who resented both the conclusions that much of their province’s celebrated economic achievement was being canceled by environmental damage and being called to account by central party leaders. Green GDP calculations continued to be made by others, however. The World Bank found that nearly 6 percent—over half—of China’s national GDP growth should be canceled from air and water pollution damages to sustainable ecosystems and human health. The deputy minister of China’s own, weak state environmental protection agency went further. He estimated the annual cost of environmental loss at 8 to 13 percent of GDP—negating all China’s vaunted economic growth.

China’s environmental challenge is reminiscent of the unsanitary, overcrowded conditions that hallmarked Britain’s cities in the early Industrial Revolution—writ immensely larger and intensified by modern-scale technologies and much more concentrated, rapid development. Somewhere between 2025 and 2035, the clean freshwater may run out in its water-famished north and its promise to clean up its polluted lakes and rivers will fall due to a public that is increasingly restive about environmental hazards. China’s conundrum is that it can ill afford to disappoint the soaring material expectations of its 1.5 billion citizens with remedies that might significantly hamper its dazzling economic growth; but its long-term growth may become unsustainable—and possibly suffer an abrupt, destabilizing environmental shock—if it doesn’t move fast enough to reverse the systematic overexploitation of its freshwater resources. Its governing dictum thus far remains frozen: Growth first, clean up later.

As the failure of the Green GDP initiative illustrated, changing an entrenched political economic culture is difficult, even for authoritarian China. In the absence of a clear and present emergency, Chinese leaders are mainly sticking to traditional, Confucian approaches that have prevailed since the Han era. Although incremental new pollution regulations and reforestation programs have been issued, only modest steps have been made to encourage more efficient use of existing water supply through pricing that more fully reflects its total cost. As a result, even in the face of widespread scarcity, the price of water in cities, industries and agriculture continues to be closely politically controlled and heavily subsidized. Chinese farmers consequently are still irrigating water-guzzling crops in dry regions in competition with cities and factories that treat and recycle far less water than is common in the West.

Chinese industry generally uses three to 10 times more water than its counterparts in the West—a significant, long-term competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace when the subsidies or the water itself give out. Clean freshwater shortages also impose a ceiling on China’s future competitiveness in water-intensive, high-tech industries such as biotechnology, semiconductors, and pharmaceuticals. Other hidden competitive disadvantages stem from the interdependencies between water, energy, and food: China’s heavy reliance on coal-based ammonia production for its fertilizer and textiles manufacturing, for instance, consumes 42 times more water than the West’s cleaner natural-gas-based ammonia production methods. Inefficient flood irrigation and heavy artificial fertilizer use, moreover, continue to pauperize soils, and add to the pollution loads diminishing China’s long-term ability to feed itself.

Notwithstanding their warning of possible environmental catastrophe at Three Gorges, China’s leaders show no sign of wavering from their tenacious determination to harness and conquer nature through many more giant infrastructure-based water schemes in active fault zones. In addition to the country’s master growth plan of a dozen more hydropower bases on the upper Yangtze, China is launching immense dams on the upper basins of the Mekong and the Salween that have the potential to divert and pollute those great rivers before they exit China to bring life to the Asian nations founded around their middle and lower reaches.

Not just China’s own Yellow and Yangtze, but most of the great rivers of Asia originate in the Tibetan Plateau. Indeed, China’s aggressive international stance toward its domination of Tibet is as much about pragmatic control of its own and Asia’s regional water resources as it is about nationalist politics. Given the vital importance of those rivers to water-stressed societies downstream, it is troubling that China stands uncooperatively apart—as it generally does on any international agreement that might possibly constrain its freedom to pursue its overriding national growth goals—from all but two other countries in the world in voting against the 1997 U.N. Watercourses Convention recognizing the need to fairly share international waterways in ways that don’t significantly harm other river states and are equitably shared among them.

Yet all China’s grandest hydraulic plans are dwarfed in scale and ambition by its heroic South-to-North Water Diversion Project. The inspirational spirit, once again, had been Mao Zedong, who during his 1952 inspection of China’s water resources, noted: “Southern China has too much water and the north has too little. We should try to borrow some from the south to help the north.” With water famine looming in the north and desirous of making the 2008 Beijing Olympics an international showcase for the new China, Chinese leaders in 2001 launched the transnational civil engineering water transfer scheme of uncertain technical feasibility and environmental side effects to redirect rivers of water—two and a half to three times the volume of the Colorado River or 25 times more than Libya’s subterranean Manmade River—northward from the Yangtze basin. Three separate channels, totaling 2,200 miles in length, were designed to carry the water across mountains, canyons, waterways, railways, and other arduous natural and man-made landscapes, to deliver parched north China from its dire thirst.

Work on the eastern and central routes began on an accelerated timetable to be ready to deliver water for the Olympics; the more complex, western project is programmed to start after 2010. The eastern route diverts water from the mouth of the Yangtze and, with the help of 13 pumping stations, lifts it to channels that carry it along the coast through the north China plain and on to the cities Tianjin and Beijing. Large sections run through still-functioning portions of the Grand Canal. The central route is to enlarge the huge artificial reservoir on the Han River, a main tributary of the Yangtze, and build a new 200-foot-wide water canal and aqueduct the length of France across the heavily populated north China plain toward Beijing and Tianjin. Supplemented by water from a Yangtze aqueduct near the Three Gorges Dam, it is designed to travel by tunnel under the Yellow River, cross 500 roads and 120 railway lines, and displace a quarter million people in its building. The goal is to relieve pressure on the Yellow by supplying water to the thirsty regions around it. The final western route is envisioned to reroute water from the Yangtze headwaters in the glacial, Tibetan plateau directly into the Yellow River—the only one of the three routes to replenish the Yellow River directly.

The doubts of environmentalists and water engineers about world history’s largest water transfer project were brushed aside in the urgency to deliver water to the north. The main worry about the eastern route has been that it might simply spread the extreme pollution from the Grand Canal and contaminate regional river basins. Following the great flood of 1855, large stretches of the Grand Canal had been left in a state of disrepair and left dry. The hundreds of miles still in use, which transported over 100,000 cargo ships annually, had become a filthy, malodorous, lifeless, black-colored cesspool of factory effluent and urban sewage; even touching its waters was treacherous to one’s health. The diversion project requires building hundreds of new sewage treatment plants, closing the endless rows of dirty factories along its banks, massive dredging, and other major cleanups.

Along the central route, a chief concern has been that taking too much water from the Han tributary would upset the region’s ecological balance and worsen pollution farther downstream. Pumping water across the mountains from the Three Gorges Dam would, in turn, lower that dam’s hydroelectric output by at least 6 percent. The western route would be by far the most technically challenging, having to cut through mountains and gorges through tunnels up to 65 miles long in an earthquake-prone zone.

The South-to-North Water Diversion scheme is China’s most ambitious hydraulic undertaking to harness and conquer nature since the Grand Canal itself. Like the Grand Canal, it represents a potential new landmark chapter in water and world history—the opening of a new era of nationwide plumbing networks that consolidate all accessible surface and ground water into a single supply that, if successful, likely will be imitated by other water-distressed nations. Such long-distance, gigantic-scale water-moving approaches are increasingly disfavored in the United States and other industrialized, liberal democracies as environmental anathemas whose benefits can be provided with fewer negative side effects in more ecosystem-sustainable ways. Critics often liken it to the Soviet Union’s disastrous alteration of the Aral Sea and regional climate from its replumbing of central Asia.

On one level, the international debate over water management is a recasting of the ancient Chinese Taoist-Confucian philosophical argument over the degree to which man should bend to the natural order to live in modest harmony with it or strive to command and harness it artificially to his will. In modern parlance, the debate is framed in terms of soft-path versus hard-path solutions. Tao-like soft-path advocates, who have been gaining influence internationally with the spread of the environmentalist movement, emphasize improved efficiencies from existing water supplies and “right-scaled” solutions tailored to users’ needs that give preference to smaller, more decentralized technologies and administration, and operate in closer harmony with the flow of nature to achieve systemic environmental balances. Hard-path proponents, who have dominated engineering thinking for most of human history and reached their zenith of achievement in the twentieth-century age of dams, continue to favor technologies and centralized infrastructures that strive to remold Nature’s ecosystems and water resources on a grand scale. In the twenty-first century, China is the unapologetic, leading state representative of the hard path. Yet on a simpler, everyday level, the Chinese predilection for outsized waterworks projects simply reflects the nation’s desperate thirst with few viable short-term alternatives.

If successful, the South-to-North Water Diversion Project could vault China beyond the immediate peril posed by its water-scarcity crisis. But it is unlikely to solve China’s longer-term crisis for an obvious reason—the Yangtze itself is already becoming overtaxed and doesn’t have enough surplus to send north to keep pace for long with China’s rapid modernization. It postpones, but does not constitute a direct response to, the fundamental problem of China’s freshwater security and ecosystem depletion.

Meanwhile, global warming lurks as a potential environmental Hiroshima over China’s total water supply. Glaciers in the Tibetan plateau that are the source of its major rivers are rapidly melting, as they are across the Himalayas. All of China’s giant dam and water transfer schemes could be transformed overnight into an epic boondoggle if disappearing glaciers render them all wrong sized for the new, more extreme seasonal climate patterns. China is not alone in facing the global warming threat, but the sheer scale of its gamble on the success of its large dams and water transfer schemes means that it has more at stake than everyone else. No one knows for certain how much time China has before it feels the full brunt of its climate change reckoning. But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that by 2035, global warming is likely to result in the melting away of enough of the glaciers to cause the nation’s freshwater supply to fall as much as a third below its farming needs—about the same time frame that China’s other water environmental crises are expected to climax.

China’s future hinges heavily upon how it meets its water and environmental crises. The twentieth-century restoration of its illustrious, old civilization and its rising superpower status both depend upon it. One possible political outgrowth is that the nation’s grassroots environmentalist movement may emerge as an enduring domestic force that nudges the government in a more liberal democratic, responsive direction. On the other hand, it is equally possible that the environmentalist pressures might provoke an authoritarian backlash that collides violently with the inexorable, immediate need to provide vast new supplies of water and other resources to meet the material expectations of a billion and a half people. Whether China succeeds or fails in meeting its water challenges, the outcome will be felt internationally and leave indelible impressions on the history of the twenty-first century.

While water scarcity and ecosystem depletion is a vulnerability for fast-growing, water-stressed giants China and India, it is simultaneously delivering to the relatively water-wealthy, liberal industrial democracies of the West a renewed strategic opportunity to revive their own waning leadership status in the changing world order. In an age of scarcity in which freshwater is becoming the new oil, the industrial democracies enjoy an enormous comparative resource advantage that they have yet to fully recognize or exploit.