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China: A National Water Emergency

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China faces some of the most serious water issues on the planet. The problems stem from explosive population growth and an inadequate water supply, which has pitted demand for clean drinking water against the demand for industry and agriculture. So in China, drought and pollution combine to make devastating water problems. To put the problem in context, the country has 20% of the world’s population with less than 8% of its water; in other words, the Chinese per-capita water supply is a quarter of the world average. Half of China’s large cities, including Beijing, face a water shortage.

Map showing division of China into halves based on precipitation. Northern half of the country arid and southern half is wet.
Map showing division of China into halves based on precipitation. The northern half of the country is arid and southern half is wet

Superimposed on the overall shortage is a significant disparity in supply with the northern tier of China being significantly more arid and the southern tier being significantly more moist. Just under 50 percent of the population of China lives in the northern tier, and close to 60 percent of cultivated land is also in this area, yet only 14 percent of the country's total water resources are found in the region. Production of grain has gradually shifted from the south of China to the north, exacerbating this problem. As a result, the water table is dropping by 1.5 meters per year in parts of the northern portion of the country.

In all, explosive population growth and rapid industrialization have fueled the demand for water nationwide over the last sixty years with the construction of more than 86,000 reservoirs, drilling of more than four million wells, and development of 580,000 square kilometers of irrigated land that generates 70% of the country's total grain production. Generally, lax Chinese environmental controls have led to some of the worst water quality in the world with widespread pollution. Factories are very often situated on river banks for water supply, yet a shortage of water treatment plants results in about 80% of wastewater bring discharged untreated back into the same rivers it came from, and about 75% of rivers are polluted. Worse, approximately 90% of groundwater in urban areas is polluted. Unfortunately, farmers have no choice but to use contaminated water for their crops. And an estimated 700 million people drink contaminated water every day. In some parts of the country, high incidences of digestive cancers (stomach, esophagus, intestine) have been tied to water pollution.

Examples of Pollution in China

Video: China's 'cancer villages' reveals the dark side of economic boom (4:58)

Click here for a transcript of the China's 'cancer villages' reveal dark side of economic boom video.

Woman speaking Chinese (Translation): The doctor told me I have a disease. It's cancer.

Man speaking Chinese (translation): My father died from cancer in 1997. My aunt got cancer too, in 2009.

Another man speaking Chinese (translation): All kinds of diseases that did not exist in the past have started to appear.

Narrator: The village of Xinglong in Yunnan province is a rural idyll next to an industrial hell hole. Before the factories came, this was a healthy community. Now, everyone here knows someone who has died of cancer. Xiao Lian lost his aunt and father to the disease after the village streams change color.

Xiao Lian speaking Chinese (translation): When I was a child, we used to water our cows here. The stream used to be crystal clear, surrounded by trees and grass. Now, it is polluted. The water here is red. Our former spring is yellow, polluted by the chemical factory. Before the factories were built, there was no cancer. We were free of strange diseases. Now, we hear every year that this person or that person has cancer. Especially lung and liver cancer. My aunt never drank alcohol or smoked. Her cancer was completely caused by pollution.

Narrator: The government doesn't recognize the problem, nor do the factory owners. But the local doctor has no doubt that 3,000 residents are at risk.

Local doctor speaking Chinese (translated): In the past, cancer was not obvious...but in recent years, it has become a very evident problem. Last year alone, we had five cancer cases. Most cases are stomach or lung cancer. People tried to protest, but they were not allowed to do so. The chemical factories here are not state-owned...but they contribute a great deal to the local economy.

Toxins from the chemical and paper factories enter the food chain through water, cattle, and crops. The impact may well have spread beyond the village, but local farmers say they have no choice.

Local farmer speaking Chinese (translation): When the wind blows in this direction, a thick layer of soot settles on my peach trees. Lots of fruit turn black and fall to the ground. I dare not eat the rice I plant and harvest because the pollution is so bad. I sell it on the street.

Narrator: There is said to be more than 100 cancer villages in China. Jongu Mae has reason to fear her community has become another.

Jongu Mae speaking Chinese (translation): I have cancer, and I am now getting treatment. See? My hair has fallen out...The poison comes from chemical factories. the rice we eat and the water we drink are polluted. That caused my cancer...My brother-in-law has cancer like me. He is dead already. I want to tell the factories that they make too much pollution. Because of them, Xinglong village is sick.

Narrator: Today, it's a personal tragedy, but wider questions about the sickness villages like Xinglong will be asked for generations to come.

Construction of the largest aqueduct in China to move water from the south to the north of the country.
Construction of the largest aqueduct in China to move water from the south to the north of the country.
Credit: Ian Riley (All rights are reserved.)

Mismanagement of water resources is commonplace. Diversion of rivers for industrial purposes and irrigation has caused water shortages in areas that once had a steady water supply. The Yellow River, once a sizeable waterway and source of water for agriculture, has been diverted for irrigation and dries up for increasing portions of the year, in 2010 for more than 200 days. As in many parts of the world, industrial demand for water has trumped demand for agriculture. Even when water remains for agriculture, a large amount is wasted through evaporation. The total lost from canals and irrigation systems is 60-80% of the supply.

This is summarized in the video Yellow River Drying Up in China. Click to watch it.

The following video discusses the water pollution problem in China. Watch the first 10 minutes or so.

Video: China: Shifting Nature (59:03)

Click here for a transcript of the China: Shifting nature video.

ALL: [SINGING IN CHINESE]

NARRATOR: China's people are paying the price for her rapid economic growth. The prosperity touches some. The pollution touches all.

SPEAKER 1: People welcome the factories. Because with factories moving in, we could earn some money and prosper.

WU DENGMING: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: But then once the factories were here, people realized, our water is being polluted. We can't drink it. Our soil has been polluted, and grain production has fallen. Our fruit trees have died of pollution. Our pigs have died. Our sheep have died. And our people have died, too-- died of cancer. Then they thought, we don't want the benefit like this, factories like these. At first, we wanted money. But now, we want quality of life.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

NARRATOR: Nature in China is becoming a battleground, contested by scientists, environmentalists, government, and ordinary people-- 1.3 billion of them-- whose water, air, and soil are at stake.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

PAN YUE: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: The environmental challenge isn't just to provide our children with future happiness, but the real question of whether our generation can survive intact.

NARRATOR: Development creates human as well as environmental cost. Giant construction projects involve resettling people in new cities, uprooting millions from land, job, and home. There are places in China which remind us what it must all have once been like when the rivers were at the center of daily life, when the water was clean enough to wash vegetables--

[MUSIC PLAYING]

--when the air was pure enough to dry meat safely, when taming nature meant using cormorants to catch fish.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

And the Chinese also have a long history of improving nature. Two and a half thousand years ago, they started building the Grand Canal, linking rivers and cities.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

By the 1950s, heavy industrialization was the priority.

MAO ZEDONG: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

NARRATOR: Chairman Mao Zedong urged the Chinese people to conquer nature, thereby freeing themselves from it. Half a century on, China opens a new coal power station every week of the year and emits more greenhouse gases than any country other than America.

LEI HENGSHUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: You can't solve the problem of poverty without economic development. But as you speed up economic development, you can't help but destroy the environment.

LEI HENGSHUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: To cultivate more land, you have to build roads, chop down forests. You have to do the same to build a factory. And with this kind of economic development, emissions of industrial waste and gases massively increase, as does human sewage with the rise in population density and living standards. And so, there's more and more pollution.

PAN YUE: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: Of the world's 10 most polluted cities, five, unfortunately, are in China. Such severe pollution is undoubtedly a grave threat to the physical health of the Chinese people.

NARRATOR: The Huai River flows for over 600 miles across the middle of China, providing water for 150 million people.

HUO DAISHAN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: I was born on the banks of the Huai River. It was in 1987 that I grew worried about the problem of water pollution in the river. I'd gone back to take pictures of the scenery, but there no longer was any scenery. Instead, I found myself taking photos of people dredging up dead fish.

Huo Daishan gave up his job as a news photographer to save the Huai. Research took him to its main tributary, the Shaying. Nearly half a million tons of human sewage a day are tipped into it. There's a million tons of untreated wastewater from paper mills, tanneries, chemical works. Some used process is banned elsewhere. Their effluents include ammonia, cyanide, arsenic.

HUO DAISHAN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: Water from this river has flowed through irrigation channels into villages and sunk into the ground. People who drank this polluted groundwater just became ill. The water of this river-- black and stinky water-- takes death with it wherever it flows.

It really is a river of death. Before, the local rate for cancer was 1 in 100,000. Now, in some villages, it's 1 in 100. Cancer doesn't differentiate between age or gender. This cancer sufferer is one-year-old.

A grandfather, grandmother, father, and mother have all died from tumors and cancers. She has cancer of the liver and has had an operation which left a deep scar. This woman had esophagus cancer and had an operation followed by chemotherapy. She lost all her hair. When I saw her, she was already beyond cure, was preparing for death, and had put on her burial clothes.

This is an esophagus cancer sufferer from Huangmengying Village. Her name was [? Jiang Weijia. ?] The cancer had blocked her whole gullet. Not even a drop of water could get through it. Shortly after I took this photo, she died.

WANG CANFA: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: It's widely reported that because of Huai River pollution, there are cancer villages. But if you sue through the courts, the requirements for evidence are very strict. If you don't have this evidence, you might lose the case.

And where the cause of illness is pollution, it's very difficult to gather evidence. So, say you've got a disease like stomach cancer or lung cancer and you say it's caused by polluted water. It's extremely difficult to prove the causal connection between the two.

NARRATOR: The scales are tipped firmly against the victims. To secure proof, they need independent forensic analysis.

WANG CANFA: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: I've been advocating the establishment of just such an organization to inspect and evaluate water, but there isn't one yet. There are two environmental medicine research institutes, but they don't normally carry out inspections for victims. They usually investigate cases handed them by the government, and they don't publish the results of their investigations.

NARRATOR: Vice Minister Pan Yue does not need convincing of the link between people's health and their environment.

PAN YUE: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: Two million of our people die from cancer every year. We don't have accurate figures. We haven't done the sums, but many cancer cases are related to environmental pollution.

NARRATOR: But a booming economy is one of China's priorities. And the environment administration has limited power to hinder that.

PAN YUE: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: Our environmental law has tens of sections. But it stipulates that we can only play a supervisory role and don't have the power to shut down polluting companies. It's surprising that in all these sections, we haven't been granted this authority.

We don't have the power. So what are we to do? The fines that can be imposed are tiny. The cost of observing the law is high, but it costs very little to break it. So, why would anyone listen to what we have to say and stop polluting? Of course, they won't.

NARRATOR: Another problem is the complex web of links between local industry and local government. These range from legitimate common interests like maintaining employment to out and out corruption. Some liberal governments even part own polluting factories. And treating waste eats into profits.

HUO DAISHAN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: Local protectionism is everywhere. These big companies are pillars of the economy. They're powerful taxpayers. They play an important, supported role for local finance and development.

NARRATOR: Environmental campaigners like Huo Daishan operate in a gray area. Nationally, they could be taken as heroes, fighting for cleaner, safer China. But locally, they can seem more like troublemakers.

HUO DAISHAN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: I've had anonymous, threatening phone calls, saying this isn't any of your business, so keep out of it. Don't stick your nose into matters that don't concern you. That's one thing, but it's not all. I've been beaten up.

NARRATOR: One result of local protectionism is that some officials tip off factory forces that inspectors are on the way. Then the factories hurriedly treat the waste, making the river flow clear for a while.

HUO DAISHAN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: There's a folk song going around with the words, meeting clear water is the sign that soon it's official inspection time.

NARRATOR: China's official news agency Xinhua has said that around 50,000 people along the Shaying River have been found to have cancer-- As for Huangmengying, the original cancer village, local government was shamed by Huo Daishan and these photos into giving the villagers a deep well with safe water, but only after 118 of them had died.

HUO DAISHAN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: The situation there is improving, but Huangmengying Village isn't a special case. It isn't a chance incident. These high cancer rates we're seeing-- these cancer villages are just the tip of the iceberg.

NARRATOR: The scale of the problem is daunting. Almost anywhere there are people, there's pollution. And pollution is easily spread. This river flows from Tibet into India and Bangladesh. A third of the world's population uses water from China. China's acid rain falls on Korea and Japan. Pollution from its factory chimneys lands in Canada. There's little incentive for individuals or industry to take responsibility for waste.

[BIRDS SQUAWKING]

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Here's a typical scenario-- a small factory on the edge of a village. Around the side-- an outflow for waste from the industrial process.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

This is then piped into an irrigation channel, which provides water for farmers' crops.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

This is called the Clear River, but it's being killed by the waste from a pulp factory.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

China grades water into five categories. Over half the country's major river systems are below level three and so are unfit for any human use. A third is so polluted, they don't even make level 5. One of the few lawyers in China who take on pollution cases is Wang Canfa.

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

He's won nearly 18 environmental cases securing restitution for victims. He helps draft environmental laws and trains judges, but it's hard getting justice in pollution cases.

WANG CANFA: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: According to our system, the courts are financed by local government. So if a court finds a local business in the wrong and orders it to cease production, the local government will stop receiving tax revenues. That's why there's often interference in court cases, so you can't get a fair judgment. If we had a lever for forcing local governments to see the protection of the environment as their responsibility, even their mission, then environmental protection would be improved.

NARRATOR: There's no consistent pattern. Some local governments resist environmental protection groups. Others encourage them. The Han River in Hubei Province runs through areas of heavy industrial pollution. But it has guardian angels, both in Communist Party offices and along its banks.

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Yun Jianli leads the Green Han River Group on a campaign and field trip. Their members include teachers, engineers, policemen, and businessmen. Senior local party official Ma Li sees them as allies.

MA LI: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: The government has always supported these activities. We think that having such a beautiful mother river-- we should treasure it as we do our own eyes. We take pride in the fact that you can drink water straight from the middle reach of the Han River.

NARRATOR: One of the group's main tasks is getting local people to help look after the river.

SPEAKER 2: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

ALL: [SINGING IN CHINESE]

NARRATOR: The group is worried about heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which run off the fields into the river. Yun Jianli preaches green values to a poultry farmer.

YUN JIANLI: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

NARRATOR: A mile downstream, another member of the group decides to taste the water. What gives the Green Han River Group the freedom to operate is the approval of local officials who put the environment ahead of local commercial interests.

MA LI: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: There's a fermented soya paste factory in the upper reach of the Han River. And the waste it produced heavily polluted the river. Around a thousand people worked in this factory, but we shut it down. We shut it down without any hesitation. And there have been many cases like this-- cement factories, paper factories. There's a lot list. Whether it's governmental organizations or NGOs, we pursue the same aim-- a better life, a better environment.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

NARRATOR: In the north of China, millions of people don't even have dirty water.

MA LI: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: It'd be OK if it rained. The trees would grow in the mountains. We'd have water to drink. The wheat would grow, so we'd have food to eat. The problem is, it doesn't rain.

NARRATOR: China is trying to feed 20% of the world's population on just 7% of the world's arable land. Over a quarter of China is sand. And an awful lot of that sand is in Ningxia, a partly Muslim region in Northern China.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

The terraced fields have been plowed, waiting for rain that doesn't come. This village is even called Crying Out for Water. The people of Ningxia are among the poorest in China. Some like Ma Li follow tradition by making their homes in caves.

MA LI: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: We have nothing. You see there's nothing here. We don't wash much. No water, no washing things. Water costs money. No money, no water.

NARRATOR: Ningxia's main source of water is the Yellow River. It's also been Ningxia's barrier against the Gobi Desert to the north. But people have chopped down the trees, which once lined and protected its banks. Forest has given way to sand, pushing up soot levels in the river. The Gobi Desert is now spreading into Ningxia. Some people have overplowed and overgrazed, turning grasslands to desert. Add climate change and the result is sandstorms, hunger, poverty, but not for all.

MA ZANLIN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: [? Hongsapu ?] was virtually part of the Gobi Desert. It really was a desert with one sand dune after another. And now, it's being turned into an oasis.

NARRATOR: The Chinese have created fertile farmland in the desert at a cost of 200 million pounds.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Pumping stations and canals bring precious water up from the Yellow River 20 miles away.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

150 square miles of desert is now producing crops.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Millions of trees have been planted to strengthen embankments and act as windbreaks. And with the hydraulic engineering, there's social engineering. 400,000 people have been resettled here from the driest parts of Ningxia

MA ZANLIN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: They see it as their right to survival and development. Our country, among others, now advocates human rights. But if people don't even have subsistence rights, how can you talk about their rights to development? So, as long as the state can afford it, we should try our best to move people up here from the south.

NARRATOR: The first house in this new village was built by Ma Yingzhong.

MA YINGZHONG: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: People are very happy to come here. It's not like we don't want to. Even if you didn't want to move, what could you do without rain? There was no way of surviving. The wind was slight yesterday and didn't blow away the sand. Big improvement. Wherever there's water, things are good. That's why we have a summer harvest on the land here.

NARRATOR: But they can't afford to move everyone. 1.7 million people will have to remain in the arid areas.

MA LI: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: I want to go. And I'd take mom, dad, and everyone with me. Who doesn't want to move? But we're not being moved. We have to stay here.

NARRATOR: Ma Zanlin isn't worried. He believes the pressures will ease on those left behind.

MA ZANLIN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: Take one chopstick out of a bunch and you lose the rest. So, relocating one family helps three families.

NARRATOR: But the argument that there'll be more water to go round doesn't work where there isn't any water in the first place.

MA LI: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: The other day, I said to a government official if you won't move us, can you at least give us running water? Running water? he said. That would be a bit tricky. You see, we're too far and too high. They can't get the water up here.

NARRATOR: Drought in the Gobi Desert are creeping across Northern China. The Gobi is just 100 miles from the outskirts of Beijing. Leading hydraulic engineer Liu Zihui puts the problem in practical terms.

LIU ZIHUI: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: People from Northern China like eating dumplings-- Chinese dumplings. And when they finish the dumplings, they like drinking the broth. As there's a shortage of water in the region, you could eat as many dumplings as you want in a restaurant, but you won't get any more broth.

NARRATOR: Beijing's 10 million people rely for their water on Miyun Reservoir, 50 miles from the capital. But the level has dropped to a third of its capacity. The water's edge has receded so far that farmers now cultivate the land.

LIU ZIHUI: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: The mayor of Beijing would be very nervous if there weren't enough water in the reservoir. If the water supply stopped, it would be a disaster for Beijing. A crisis like that would affect the stability of people's lives, the stability of our society.

NARRATOR: 200 million people across the north of China face the real possibility that one day the water will run out. To head off this catastrophe, their leaders plan to spend 32 billion pounds, diverting water from the south of China to the north. Three new canals will be created, each hundreds of miles long. It's the biggest hydraulic project in the history of the world. Professor Liu is responsible for this-- the middle canal.

LIU ZIHUI: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: You could describe this project as extremely big. Its total length will be 900 miles. We're talking, in effect, about building a new river, a rather large man-made river, running from the south to the north.

NARRATOR: All three waterways involve mighty feats of engineering. At Danjiangkou Reservoir, they'll have to raise the height of the dam by 50 feet to increase water capacity. Here, Professor Liu's canal will burrow under the Yellow River itself.

The eastern line will commandeer the ancient Grand Canal, studding it with pumping stations, forcing the water uphill to Beijing. But the most challenging and uncertain route requires tunneling for 160 miles, through the mountains of the Tibetan Plateau. The whole project will take perhaps 50 years to complete.

LIU ZIHUI: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: I don't feel we are conquering nature. We think nature itself isn't very fair. God isn't fair. Why is that? He's given Southern China so much water, but given the North so little. It's good land. Nice, flat land up there, but it's got so little water. So, we say, as God isn't fair, we are trying to balance out God's unfairness.

NARRATOR: But there's no point in balancing it out with dirty water. The Grand Canal is so polluted that the northern city of Tianjin with low reserves and 10 million people is reluctant to accept water from it.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

And what effect will the South-North Diversion itself have on China's environment?

ZHANG JIYAO: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: We'll assess the ecological impact during the process of the project's implementation. That's precisely why we've divided the project into several stages. According to our current assessment, the South-North Water Diversion would not have much effect on China's ecology.

NARRATOR: But all that water going north has to come from somewhere. And the less water there is in a river, the higher the proportion of pollution. The river which is going to provide much of the water for the middle line is the Han River. So Yun Jianli and the Green Han River Group are out campaigning again to foresters at a riverside plantation.

YUN JIANLI: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

LEI HENGSHUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: We've been forced into the South-North Diversion because of China's particular situation. Of course, a lot of experts are against it. The most crucial thing is to guarantee the quality of water. If it's dirty water being diverted over thousands of miles, then the losses will outweigh the gains.

NARRATOR: The Han River flows into the Yangtze at Wuhan. This booming city has realized that water pollution now threatens its very character. But for once, rivers aren't the problem.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

A suction pipe blows a geyser of black mud into the sky.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Dead fish pull up at the edge of water too dangerous to paddle it.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

A drain is backed up, sending raw sewage into another of the city's ornamental lakes. Wuhan was once famed for its hundred beautiful lakes. But as the city has grown, it's used them as dumps for industrial waste and raw sewage. Now, the people who go boating on Lotus Lake take not picnics, but funnels, filters, sample bottles. Professor Wu Zhenbin is an expert on water in the environment. He's running an experimental project over three years to try and clean up just six of Wuhan's lakes.

WU ZHENBIN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: We're collecting samples to analyze the water quality and its biological composition. We collect samples four times a week. The water may look all right, but its quality is actually very poor. If you touch it, it's bad for you. And just standing near it, you can tell it stinks. So, it's no good for people's health. 30 years ago, people used to be able to swim in water. Not anymore. But we really want to use the lakes.

NARRATOR: The cleanup has already begun using natural methods. Water is pumped up from the lake and pass through rows of plants, which absorb and break down pollutants. It then seeps through a bed of earth, which acts as a second filter.

WU ZHENBIN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: Having gone through two levels of treatment in this experimental system, the water comes out over there, having been nicely purified. That's how the water in this small lake is being improved.

NARRATOR: Professor Wu plans to reopen connections between the lakes and flush them through with water, drawn from the Han River by this new channel. Cities around China are watching to see if his solutions will work for them.

WU ZHENBIN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: It looks like what we're doing is changing things. Actually, what we're doing is recovering things. We're trying our best to get everything back to its original state. Our work benefits the environment as well as the quality of people's lives. That's how I see it. We don't think we're changing nature. We're trying to get back closer to nature, to how things used to be.

NARRATOR: He has more than the water to clean up. The toxic mud which forms the lake beds must be dredged out completely. It'll take 10 years to get to the lakes up to level 4, which is still unfit for any human use. Some of the rarest mammals on the planet live in the Wuhan area. Here, too, scientists are working to recover a desperate situation.

WANG DING: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: The porpoises living in the Yangtze River are the only freshwater porpoises in the world. You can't find them anywhere else. And they're different from the ones living in the sea. That's why they are unique. They're very special.

NARRATOR: The porpoises are rarer than pandas. And the pandas' environment can be protected, whereas the porpoises have to take their chances in the busy waters of the Yangtze. Pollution is only part of their problem. The South-North Water Diversion will reduce levels of the Yangtze, increasing underwater noise from ships' engines and propellers.

WANG DING: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: The porpoises use the sonar system and echolocation to survive and communicate, but the noises greatly disrupt their sonar system. Sometimes, especially during the low-water season along the narrow channels, we find them killed by propellers.

NARRATOR: This female porpoise is pregnant. Professor Wang will release her and her young with the others into a protected backwater of the Yangtze.

WANG DING: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: China is the most populous country in the world. Given this competition for resources is inevitable between man and animals as well as other living beings. Humans are always on top. But as they develop, they mustn't damage the environment too much. Because in the end, humanity as a whole will have to face the consequences.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

NARRATOR: According to official Chinese figures, 160 million people in China's cities breathe air considered very dangerous to health.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

400,000 of them die prematurely from air pollution every year, mostly from lung and heart-related diseases.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Environmental activist Dai Qing puts herself into the mind of a corrupt official who protects polluters, rather than their victims.

DAI QING: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: Whatever I can grab, I grab and the rest. Whether others live or die, the environment, air quality-- I don't care. If there's money, I'll take it. And then when the country has got no clean water or air, so I'll emigrate-- sneak my money away and live a quiet life. But what if everyone in China did this?

WANG CANFA: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: Environment protection departments should emphasize law enforcement. And they can't just rely on one or two operations here and there to deal with companies that break the law, but should enforce the law on a daily basis. They must build strong mechanisms to enforce environmental laws. They've got to be ready at anytime to arrest those who don't abide by environmental laws and punish them.

NARRATOR: Chongqing on the Yangtze River is Western China's industrial powerhouse.

[HONKING]

WU DENGMING: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: The main pollutant being pumped out is sulfur dioxide. This comes from Chongqing's high-sulfur coal. The coal used in our power stations hasn't had the sulfur taken out. Now, the state is gradually introducing requirements for sulfur removal. But in order to cut costs, the power stations just emit the sulfur dioxide anyway.

NARRATOR: The mountainous cost of cleaning up all this environmental damage would effectively cancel out China's remarkable growth rate of around 8% a year.

PAN YUE: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: I think it's reasonable to say that the loss to our economy caused by the environment is 15% of our GDP. I want all Chinese officials to understand the linkage between the economy and protecting the environment. Economic growth alone can't solve the increasingly serious problems of overpopulation, shortage of resources, and environmental pollution.

NARRATOR: Human costs in China are not just about pollution, as the Three Gorges Dam shows. Its purpose is to generate electricity and control flooding on the Yangtze River. But there have long been serious concerns about its environmental impact and the plight of the one million people forced to relocate.

At the National People's Congress in 1992, two delegates protested, as only supporters of the dam we're allowed to speak. With a third of the delegates abstaining or voting against the project, Professor Lei and others pushed through a key amendment, giving them the right to monitor the project and highlight problems.

LEI HENGSHUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

I think this was an historic achievement. It provided the legal basis for people like me to carry out research in this area. Through this resolution, the state acknowledged that any problems discovered should be further investigated and solved accordingly. So, after taking part in the 1992 National People's Congress, I turned the focus of my scientific research towards the Three Gorges Dam Reservoir area.

NARRATOR: Almost every year since then, Professor Lei has made field trips into the area of the dam.

LEI HENGSHUN [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: I'm an academic. I can't just trot out what other people say. I have to do research in person.

NARRATOR: First stop is a tree-planting scheme about 50 miles upstream of the dam. But even though the professor has won the right to ask straight questions about progress on the dam, he has no guarantee of straight answers.

LEI HENGSHUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

NARRATOR: Professor Lei strikes out on his own to talk directly to the tree planters.

LEI HENGSHUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

NARRATOR: The reason he's so interested in the tree planting is because after the valley is flooded, it'll be the trees that'll help stabilize the upper slopes.

LEI HENGSHUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

NARRATOR: No sooner does the professor join the tree planters, then he is joined by another official.

SPEAKER 3: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

NARRATOR: She, too, it turns out is from the Propaganda Department.

LEI HENGSHUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

SPEAKER 3: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

LEI HENGSHUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

SPEAKER 3: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

LEI HENGSHUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

NARRATOR: The professor finally gets the answer he wants from the tree planters themselves.

LEI HENGSHUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

NARRATOR: It's clearly the business of the Propaganda officials to paint as positive a picture of the dam as possible. But even they can't conceal what it'll do to this valley.

LEI HENGSHUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

NARRATOR: As well as the world famous gorges, whole cities, towns, villages, and fertile farmland will be submerged for 400 miles. And how clean will all this water be? Xiong Tongfu, local director of Propaganda, is adamant.

XIONG TONGFU: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

NARRATOR: The Xinhua news agency admits that the city of Chongqing alone tips over a billion tons of untreated waste into the Yangtze every year.

DAI QING: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: In the area of the dam, I've not only seen rubbish like polystyrene boxes and plastic bags bobbing about, but also excrement, human excrement. I've seen a dead body floating past. I've seen all these things.

NARRATOR: Professor Lei now visits Yunyang, a new town being built for over 100,000 people, whose homes are to be flooded by the Three Gorges Dam. Here, the propaganda officials agreed to stand back and let the locals talk freely. As in Ningxia, if your previous life was harsh, you welcome resettlement.

SPEAKER 4: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: If we hadn't been moved because of the dam, we'd still be in our old town where things were a lot worse. We're quite happy now.

SPEAKER 5: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: Since moving here, our living conditions have got a lot better.

SPEAKER 6: [SPEAKING CHINESE] It's like heaven.

[LAUGHTER]

SPEAKER 5: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: We never thought we'd be able to move to a house like this. It's been good for us.

NARRATOR: But 11 cities are being submerged. People have lost jobs as well as homes. Many farmers are being moved off land they've worked for generations. Modest compensation payments are soon spent. And what's a farmer to do in a block of flats?

LEI HENGSHUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: It's not enough for a person just to have a house to live in. How can they make a living? No job, no income. The housing is great. For peasants, they're mansions, but there's no safety net. They're slipping into poverty. People say they're beggars, beggars living in mansions. That's what ordinary people say. It's a vivid image. And it lays bare the nature of the problem.

NARRATOR: It's a long day for Professor Lei, but he's still curious to learn more about life after resettlement. He comes upon a group of people with new homes in Yunyang, but no jobs.

LEI HENGSHUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

NARRATOR: They become increasingly relieved that someone is interested in their problems.

LEI HENGSHUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

SPEAKER 7: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

LEI HENGSHUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

SPEAKER 7: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

LEI HENGSHUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

SPEAKER 7: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

[LAUGHTER]

LEI HENGSHUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

SPEAKER 7: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

LEI HENGSHUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

SPEAKER 7: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

SPEAKER 8: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

SPEAKER 9: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

NARRATOR: Finally, the professor is taken aside by a man who hints at even darker local problems.

SPEAKER 10: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

LEI HENGSHUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: In my opinion, because of China's particular situation, there are things being done today which aren't ideal, but get done anyway.

[LAUGHTER]

That's my personal opinion, not necessarily ideal, but they still have to be done. Why? Because the problems of survival and development of China's billion-odd people have become a real headache. Firstly, we don't have enough economic power.

Secondly, our science and technology aren't very advanced. Also, most of our people are not very sophisticated. Given these circumstances, which can't be altered in the short term, all we can do is to balance advantages and disadvantages.

As long as the disadvantages don't outweigh the advantages, we can do it, but it might not be the best plan. I think it's a choice borne of helplessness.

NARRATOR: The South-North Water Diversion scheme will dwarf the Three Gorges Dam. And its advantages won't be felt for decades and won't ever be felt by those who have to make sacrifices for it. Because raising the height of Danjiangkou Dam will raise the water level of the reservoir and the rivers feeding it. People living along hundreds of miles of fertile banks will have to move out.

LIU ZIHUI [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: Our government is relocating 300,000 people in order to maintain long-term security and stable lives for 200 to 300 million people. So, the advantages from water diversion outweigh the disadvantages of relocating people. Our bottom line is to make sure that living standards after resettlement will be noticeably improved.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

NARRATOR: Fu Anyin and his wife Ai Wanying have lived, farmed, and raised their family on the upper Han River for over 30 years.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

On the hill opposite is Long Bi tower, an ancient shrine said to protect the area from flooding. But it's no match for the South-North Water Diversion.

AI WANYING: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: It's policy from the top.

[COW MOOING]

If the authorities tell you to go, you have to go. You can't stay. The people in Beijing will be drinking this water. In 2008, the water will go there. We all know that. In 2007, we all leave.

FU ANYIN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: People who've been here a long time believe it's better for a village to be poor than uprooted. The people our age are more understanding. I'll move if the party asks us to, for the sake of the country's construction. Individuals can't stand in the way. It's for the good of the majority.

AI WANYING: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: It's easy fishing here.

FU ANYIN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: The fish here taste good-- the shallow water fish.

AI WANYING: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

INTERPRETER: We don't want to leave here. Our lives are all right. We earn enough to eat and get by. If we move, we are too old to start again.

[COW MOOING]

All we can hope for is to be moved to a good place. If the new place isn't as good as here, we don't want to move. We have orange trees. We grow them to sell.

[ROOSTER CROWING]

The oranges are this big. If you come up to my home, I'll give you some to taste. There are some at home. Come and try them.

[MUSIC PLAYING

Next on China, how free are the Chinese to worship as they please, to read the truth in newspapers, to speak their minds? What are the limits of freedom and the threat to stability

And that's next Tuesday at 9:00. The newshounds face the writers. Next-- tonight on BBC, tune in to University Challenge Special. And on BBC Four, an extraordinary account of a deeply traumatic childhood, a unique and moving film: Tarnation

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Map showing location of aqueducts designed to move water from south to north China
Map showing the location of aqueducts designed to move water from south to north China.
Credit: New York Times, All Rights Reserved.

Water shortage presents a major obstacle to growth in China, moreover, pollution is a potential environmental catastrophe. To increase the supply of water to areas in the north of the country, China has developed one of the largest public works projects in the world, the South-North Water Diversion Project. This program is designed to divert water from the Yangtze River in the middle of China to rivers in the northern part of the country. Three major routes are being considered for this project, each consisting of tunnels, canals, and dams. However, the project is extremely expensive and its success is not completely ensured, thus plans remain in limbo. In the meantime, the Chinese government pledged $600 million in 2009 to improve water management and combat contamination problems.

You are certain to hear a lot more in the future about continued attempts to provide safe water for the Chinese population and agriculture, especially in the light of climate change.

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