In recent years, the imbalance between economic demand and the supply of key industrial inputs such as water has been especially stark in traditional agricultural powerhouses such as Henan, Shandong and Hebei. There, the exponential growth in water consumption for both consumer and industrial purposes (most notably, by the coal and steel industries) has far outstripped native water reservoirs' capacity. Despite housing roughly one-quarter of China's population and accounting for a similar portion of gross domestic product, the provinces of the North China Plain, including Beijing municipality, hold only 8 percent of China's total water resources. The eastern stretches of these provinces' primary traditional source of water for agricultural use, the Yellow River, now runs dry up to 230 days a year.
The eastern route of the project, the one that runs from Jiangsu through Shandong and Hebei, is in large part an update of the historical Grand Canal, which has shipped people and goods from the Yangtze River Delta to Beijing for more than 1,000 years. So far it has presented the fewest technical challenges. The middle route, which runs from Hubei province through Henan, Hebei and to Beijing, is due to be completed by 2014. This route, more than its eastern counterpart, has raised concerns over its impact on communities that rely on the Han River, one of the Yangtze's major tributaries and an important source of water for farming in northern Hubei and southern Shaanxi provinces. The more technically challenging and politically controversial western route, which will link the Yellow and Yangtze rivers nearer to their sources on the Tibetan Plateau, has yet to begin construction. According to some reports, it may not be completed until 2050, if ever.
The South-North Water Transfer Project only reinforces the geopolitical significance of the Yangtze River not only as a key transport throughput linking central and coastal Chinese provinces, but also as the economic and social foundation — through the transport of water — of northern China's industrial and agricultural heartlands. But beyond its upfront costs, the project remains shrouded in uncertainties. There are questions about its long-term environmental and social consequences for much of rural central China and for the rice-farming regions south of the Yangtze that rely heavily on rainfall from the river's wider watershed. More simply, there are doubts about its ability to meet the ambitious goals set for it by the Party leadership.
Uncertainties aside, the eastern and middle routes of the project — like the similarly criticized Three Gorges Dam in Hubei province — will likely enter into full operations by 2015. While different in scale from past attempts to manage China's perennial water constraints, the project is by no means unprecedented in kind. The ability to control water has been an important theme in Chinese political history since the semi-mythical King Yu the Great first built dikes to stem floods along the Yellow River. For Yu and subsequent Chinese rulers, engineering the environment to meet contemporary human needs was one marker of sovereign legitimacy — a dynasty's right to the "Mandate of Heaven." Today, as China again approaches the limits of an inherited economic and environmental model, China's leaders are no doubt aware of this legacy.