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PSS Summer '13

Moving Water

by Steve Bodnar

Three Gorges Dam in China

Population growth, agricultural intensification, and rapid industrialization have put a tremendous strain on China’s water resources, particularly in its northern regions. In an attempt to satisfy demand, the largest water infrastructure plan in the world, the South-North Water Diversion, is well underway. By 2050, it will divert a staggering 44.8 billion cubic meters (or 44.8 cubic kilometers) of water per year from the Yangtze River in the south to dryer areas in the north.

Affecting hundreds of millions of people and presenting massive environmental challenges, the South-North Water Diversion is one of China’s major water-related projects and is of particular interest to Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Darrin Magee. An expert on large-scale hydropower development, Magee has spent more than a decade researching and writing about water quality and water infrastructure issues in China. As the director of the Asian Environmental Studies Initiative at HWS, a program supported by The Henry Luce Foundation, Magee is dedicated to bringing content about Asia into the environmental studies program at the Colleges. Since 2007, he has also served as an adviser and consultant on China energy research at the prestigious Rocky Mountain Institute.

“The South-North Water Transfer project is a phenomenally complex feat of engineering,” says Magee. “When it’s complete, it will make the Three Gorges Dam in China—the largest hydropower station of its kind on Earth—look like a toy in a sandbox.”

In China, the limited amount of readily available high-quality drinking water is not the only serious water-related issue faced by the public. There’s also the matter of pollution. “The vast quantities of municipal, industrial and rural wastewater are part of the broader public health issue of pollution,” Magee explains. “There’s a clear urgency to address this problem. Pollution laws work well in theory, but where they fall short is with enforcement.”

Magee has traveled extensively throughout China for periods ranging from a few days to over a year. This June, he will return as a member of the Public Intellectuals Program (PIP) of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, one of only 20 scholars selected. In China, Magee will tour with other experts and will meet with officials, members of the media, and business leaders. HWS Associate Professor of Education Helen McCabe, also a China expert, previously was a PIP Fellow.

With water quality challenges affecting China’s entire population, Magee says there are increasing efforts by activists and NGOs to draw attention to the problem, bringing about incremental changes and even increasing transparency. “Fortunately, there are many who are leading the charge and have managed to raise awareness domestically and internationally about water quality through their activism. Those that are most successful find ways to advocate for environmental causes while not threatening the existing leadership.”