Beijing, August 1 - China's quest to rewrite its future through vast engineering feats could test new limits as Beijing prepares a controversial scheme to divert water from Tibet to the parched Yellow River in the country's west.
The director of the Yellow River Water Conservancy Committee, Li Guoying, said in Beijing on Tuesday the project was essential because the Yellow River's current flow is being exhausted by development demands in western China.
"When the economic and social development of the northwest reaches a certain level and the potential of water saving measures is exhausted, this project will be launched," he told a news briefing.
The long-discussed plan to harness rivers cascading from the Tibetan highlands to quench Qinghai and other undeveloped western parts of China has growing official momentum, with construction possibly starting as early as 2010, Liu Changming, a hydrologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Reuters.
The so-called Western Route of China's South-North Water Transfer Project will join the Central and Eastern Routes, already under construction, that are intended to draw water from the much larger Yangtze River for China's water-scarce north and capital, Beijing.
"Now the Western Route isn't just an abstract plan; it will go ahead," said Liu, who is advising the government on the project.
"The route isn't especially long, but it's technologically challenging, and it's a matter of resolving the engineering and environmental questions."
The Western Route of the South-North project will use a 300 kilometre-long relay of tunnels and channels to draw water from the Yalong, Dadu and Jinsha Rivers that flow into southwest China, Li said.
The completed project would cost 300 billion yuan ($37.5 billion) at current prices, and the total cost of the whole South-North project is 500 billion yuan ($62.5 billion), he added.
The plan has received the general backing of China's leaders, including President Hu Jintao, a hydro-engineer who worked in western China for decades, Liu said. But it promises to be the most controversial of Beijing's efforts to yolk Tibet's "under-used" rivers to nourish national development.
In its first phase, the scheme will transfer about 4 billion cubic metres of water annually -- about the size of California's main water transfer scheme, according to Liu -- and decades later the project will divert 17 billion cubic metres a year.
In past decades, the Yellow River's annual runoff has been about 58 billion cubic metres, according to the Conservancy Committee.
Environmentalists and advocates of Tibetan autonomy have said the project threatens to tear the region's web of environmental and cultural inter-dependence.
"This project is definitely not meant to develop Tibet," said Tashi Tsering, a Tibetan expert on the region's natural resources at the University of British Columbia in Canada.
"Tibet's water availability is actually quite limited and these rivers depend on glaciers that are receding. The consequences just haven't been thought through." ($1=8.00 Yuan)