News Feature | April 8, 2014

Is China Overlooking Desalination, Recycled Water?

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome


A Chinese official said his country overlooked the promises of recycled water and desalination technology by proceeding with its plan to undertake a gigantic construction project diverting water to arid regions. 

"Recycled water could replace diverted water. Most Chinese cities are capable of finding more water if we develop water desalination technology and collect more rain water,” wrote Qiu Baoxing, vice minister of the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, according to Forbes

The minister made it clear he thinks the diversion project is a mistake. 

He "has publicly called for an end to the South-North Water Diversion project, a $62 billion investment designed to channel water from southern China to the arid north through three canal systems," Forbes reported. 

The proposal for the ambitious project dates back decades before desalination or recycled water seemed like viable possibilities. 

The effort's "eventual goal is to move 44.8 billion cubic meters of water across the country every year, more than there is in the River Thames. The infrastructure includes some of the longest canals in the world; pipelines that weave underneath riverbeds; a giant aqueduct; and pumping stations powerful enough to fill Olympic-sized pools in minutes," the Atlantic reported

How ambitious is that, exactly? "It is the world’s largest water-transfer project, unprecedented both in the volume of water to be transferred and the distance to be traveled—a total of 4,350 kilometers (2,700 miles), about the distance between the two coasts of America. The U.S., Israel, and South Africa are home to long-distance water transfer systems, but none on this scale," the report said. 

There could be some pretty severe downsides to this effort. "It’s far from certain whether the benefits will outweigh costs. Some describe the project as a 'high-risk gamble.' And rather than showing off the power of China’s central government, in many ways the project merely highlights the limitations of the central government’s ability to manage China’s water needs," the report said. 

Water resources in China are unevenly dispersed. "While the south is a lush, lake-filled region, the north—which has half the population and most of the farmland—is more like a desert," the Economist explained

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Image credit: "Beijing Skyline," psd © 1990, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license:

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