Fast Company

How China Could Avert a Water Crisis Without Uprooting 330,000 People

Water needs in the North have forced hundreds of thousands out of their homes as dams expand, but an innovative desalinization solution could spare them.

China is the process of re-settling 330,0000 people near the soon-to-be expanded Danjiankou reservoir to already highly populated parts of Central China as part of its South-North Water Transfer Project

The project has been in the works for 50 years and will cost an estimated $62 billion dollars. It involves transferring water from the South's rivers to the North's increasingly dry areas. And it has stalled under multiple layers of challenges, drawing fierce criticism from those who compare it to the (less expensive) Three Gorges Dam project, which displaced a record 1.2 million people in 13 cities, 140 towns, and 1,350 villages.

The project places heavy pressure on local ecosystems and fisheries. Above all, it highlights China's complex path ahead with regard to managing its environment and its people. But it also highlights the country's innovation and how one player, the city of Tianjin, is to become an example for the rest of the country.

"Resettlement within the reservoir area will increase population density, fuel social tensions, and add pressure on ecosystems which are already under stress," according to a recent report on the resettlements by International Rivers. It goes on to say that the affected people should be consulted and involved more in the planning process. Locals are disconcerted and unhappy, not only about losing their homes, but also about how the environmental changes affect their livelihoods.

The concern that's led to some innovation is that the water being pumped to the north is contaminated from high pollution levels. Tianjin, a coastal port town, actually refused the water coming from the South. "As the water diversion project started, Tianjin came up with its own plan to deal with its water shortage problem: seawater desalination," Probe International reports. "Indeed, the municipality has been developing desalination technologies since the year 2000, and this has been regarded as a more likely new source of water to meet the water supply needs of the municipality."

With all challenges comes an opportunity for innovation and Tianjin, thankfully, seized the opportunity. Tianjin and the area known as Binhai New Area are to become "An eco-city that advocates environmental conservation and energy saving, a vibrant city that promotes sustainable development, a livable city that guides healthy life and a future city that displays modern civilization."

"During the construction of the eco-city, the constructors will straighten out the salt field, desalinize the seawater and make a comprehensive use of wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass and other green energies, thus to build an “oasis’ on the saline and alkaline land between the central area of Tianjin and Binhai New Area," the government's website reports.

The nearby Dagang Xinquan Seawater Desalination Project is, according to the same website, the "largest seawater desalination plant in Asia." But later the site indicates, "It is expected that at the end of this year, the total seawater desalination scale of Binhai New Area will reach 0.5 million tons a day and its annual production capacity will reach more than 150 million tons, becoming the largest seawater desalination base in China." Largest in China or largest in Asia? Either way, it's a good move and the focus on desalination offers a viable alternative to getting water via re-settling people from their homes and livelihoods and will hopefully lead to a sustainable solution for China. Tianjin is, afterall, a port city, on the coast, that doesn't lack water -- it just lacks clean water and desalination may just be its rescuer.

[Images via International Rivers/Mei Ming]

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