Geography Research Paper Sample on Benefits and Costs for the Environment, Economic Development and Culture in China

Benefits and Costs for the Environment, Economic Development and Culture in China


The South-North Water Transfer (SNWT) project seeks to try and solve water problems in the Northern part of China by using three canals to channel water from the wetter south. The three Channels are the Eastern ,Central and Western canals and  once completed will channel 44.8 billion cubic meters annually from the Yangtze River to the Yellow River basin in the more arid and industrialized North.The Eastern route passes through the course of the Grand canal,the central route flowing from the upper reaches of the Han river to Beijing and Tianjin while the Western route goes through three tributaries of  Yangtze River near Banyakala Mountain to provinces like Qinghai ,Gansu  and Ningxia. This project is largest water movement project in the history of humankind. It is expensive as it is estimated to cost more than $80 billion thus it is imperative to determine if such massive spending is justified by exploring ways that it is likely to benefit the nation and comparing its demerits and capital costs against this benefits.

This research topic is vitally important as it helps to determine if the SNWT project benefits outweighs the costs incurred. The project is estimated to cost $ 62 billion and will displace about 350, 000 people from their homes to give way to the construction of the channels. It will also take water from the south part of the country which may lead to shortage of water in those areas or to political problems with neighboring countries such as India that are downstream of the tapped rivers. The principal advantages of this project are to increase water supply to the North for Irrigation in farms and use in the cities. This will boost china’s food security, economic prosperity by increasing its economic activities such as mining and increased hydropower generation and provide equitable distribution of water resources. Thus it is imperative to quantify the benefits and the costs and weigh them to see which surpasses the other as the stakes are really high.

The Project is necessitated by the fact that the North is becoming drier and the water table has considerably dropped. This is a threat to China’s food security as more than 60% of farmers in the North depend on underground water to irrigate their crops. The Northern industrialized cities of China such as Beijing and Tianjin are facing acute water shortages to meet the demand for water which also creates pollution problems in these areas. China’s economy largely depends on the availability of water as industries such as coal mining and semiconductor manufacturers cannot function without it and this leads to under exploitation of some minerals and therefore less industrial growth which adversely affect the Economy of China. However controversy surrounding the matter has led to many scholars and thinkers trying to assess if the project is really necessary or can be substituted by another less expensive and more effective project (He, He, & Fu, 2010).

This case study is relevant to Geography as it provides the researcher an opportunity to study various phenomena concerning rivers, lakes and oceans and heir which are key subjects in Geography.  For example the study of how an increase in the amount of sediments affects the river’s erosive power in particular through the process of abrasion.  The research also covers various human activities such as Agriculture, demographic changes among others in relation to the SNWT project. The research touches on the effect of the project on Agriculture, growth of various towns and cities and fishing which are topics covered under Geography.

The aim of this research paper is to attempt to find solutions to the following research questions regarding the South-North Water Transfer project. The research questions are: What are the benefits of the project? What harm does the project impose on China economically, environmentally and culturally?  What are the specific challenges facing the project? Finally, what solution can be put into place to mitigate these challenges?  

Benefits of the Project

SNWT project has benefited China immensely in terms of its economy, culture and to a lesser degree its environment. The Main objective of the Chinese government when pooling its investments for the SNWT was to raise the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and thus benefit as many as possible Chinese households. Phase one of the project which is the Eastern bypass raised the GDP growth rate by approximately 0.12%. This insinuates that upon the completion of the whole projects the country will experience significant economic growth that will be attributed to it.

            The project has improved the economic conditions of some of the Chinese either directly or indirectly. This is due to job creation, increased investments and creation of a business enabling environment. A case in point is during the construction period of 2010, about 180,000 people were employed in the skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labor force needed to complete the task. People who invested in small businesses and macro businesses thrived due to creation of a business enabling environment that presented numerous business opportunities. For example, diners and restaurants that could sell food to the workers as well as provide accommodation especially in densely populated towns such as Hebei and Tianjin. Thus the SNWT project has acted as a catalyst for economic development of this regions and the nation as a whole (Berrittella, Rehdanz, & Tol, n.d.).

The project has also provided irrigation water to regions such as Ganxhu which has led to increased agricultural production and has contributed to increased food security. Relocation of people and industries has brought about some relief to the environment some areas like Hubei and Henan. This is due to reduced pollutions from households and industries and also land rehabilitation practices along the channel which include planting trees and soil erosion prevention mechanism.

The state and structure of infrastructure has also been greatly improved by the project through the construction of roads and railways to transport materials to construction site, communication and power supply systems have also been improved and increased due to the undergoing construction. There has also been an ease in transport due to the minimization of the distances between the western and the eastern channels and this eases the costs incurred during transportation.

            Increase in industrialization and mining activities can also be accredited to the project. This is due to increase in water supply as many industries usually require large amounts of water. The country will also be able to mine its rich deposits of minerals such as coal that had previously been hindered by lack of adequate water supply.  This leads to improved terms of payment as these industries’ products and minerals are exported and leads to creation of employment opportunities.

Culturally the project has benefited the people of China through increased integration as relocated people integrate with the people they find in their homes. It has also caused a change in the traditional economic activities of the people. For example, fishermen can also perform farming or vice versa which in most cases is associated with an increase of income.

The project has also benefited the environment by providing water to drier areas, land reclamation and rehabilitation processes and some of the money is used to preserve endangered and rare species.

Harmful Impact of the SNWT Project

The SNWT project has several harmful effects that can be categorized under economic, environmental and cultural or social-political issues. These issues have made numerous scientists and various notable intellects and activist to address openly these issues in both local and foreign media.

            Scientists anticipate that the ecological impacts of the South-North Water Transfer Project will be substantial and needs to be taken into consideration and ways to minimize it must be formulated and acted upon. The main ecological issues   include increased river course erosion that may cause a river to change its course, the increase in occurrence of saltwater intrusion into the estuaries of the Yangtze Delta. Intrusion of sea water into fresh water estuaries is largely dependent on the amount of water flowing downstream to the sea and to a lesser extent ocean currents, winds and change in weather patterns due to global warming. The construction of various dams such as the Three Gorges Dams so as to facilitate the SNWT project has significantly reduce the amount of the river’s flow rate which in turn increases the chances for sea water intruding to into the delta. The effects  of  this intrusion of salt water into estuaries in Yangtze Delta has the effect of increased salinity of this delta which leads to loss of habitat for various organisms which might lead to migration, death or decline in the population of this organism. This delta is also home to various aquatic life and birds some of which are endangered species for example the famous Chinese river dolphins which have reduced to as less as 200. This intrusion will also make the water unsuitable for irrigation, drinking and other domestic and commercial purposes. This is aggravated by the fact that the largest fresh water lake and the second largest fresh water lakes in China Lake Poyang and Lake Dongting respectively are located in this delta and serves as the main water supply to the city of Shanghai. In addition, it necessitates the use of expensive procedures to desalinize the water so as to make it fit for human, animal consumption and irrigation (Yanjun, Peng, Weihua, & Bo, 2012).

            At the bottom of reservoirs chemical reaction involving heavy metals, fertilizers and pesticides could occur which would release harmful pollutants that are transported downstream by the suspended sediments. This coupled with increased erosion may cause increase in the amount of air in the water which causes gas bubble disease in fishes and other gilled animals. The project is also likely to cause massive pollution problems and encourage the spread of diseases and pathogens. This problem faces the Eastern bypass that passes through the Grand Canal dissolving minerals and salts that make it unsuitable for drinking or harms the fish. A case in point is the devastation experienced in Lake Dongping during the testing face of the project. The water that was deposited in this lake killed numerous fish which were left to decay in the water leading to more pollution.

            On top of these environmental perils, the SNWT project is also likely to cause substantial economic problems to those directly affected by its construction and the state as a whole. The project was estimated to cost $ 80 billion in 2013 and this substantial amount is likely to increase considerably in more than the estimated four decades to complete the western channel. The funding of this project will take its toll on China’s economy and it will also affect those who are relocated estimated to be about 330, 000 people who live in Danjiangkou Reservoir only. Most of these people feel that they have not been adequately compensated for their troubles and change of livelihood.

Similarly a direct problem faces the farmers who are in the southern region who depend on the water for irrigating their crops. This problem has been worsened by changing weather patterns where the North has been experiencing more rain and the south less rain than in the past. This has even made some rise farmers in southern regions to switch from rise farming to corn which greatly diminishes their income while the industries in the north flourish at their expense (Ma, Sullivan, & Liu, 2003). SNWT project will therefore result to unequitable distribution of resources and wealth. It will also negatively impact transport through the Yangzi River due to decreased depth due to reduced water and increased siltation which is attributed to the project. This problem is not unique to the north but faces the south as well due to lack of enough water especially along the Yangzi river and the areas downstream the Three Gorge dams.

The project is also likely to cause some of the neighboring countries such as china that are downstream to some of the rivers and tributaries that will be tapped in the project. This will definitely affect these countries economically and if it takes a political dimension it may hinder bilateral trade between the conflicting nations which will hinder economic growth.

The project will also exert its toll on the cultural or social life of a significant number of Chinese. The project has sparked rural to urban migration with most young people living affected areas to look for better jobs in the cities once their livelihood has been compromised. This is the case with areas surrounding Lake Dongping. When the fishes died the youth left the area. This is likely to lead to weakened family ties which could also lead to an increase in single parent families due to one of the spouse going to work in other areas. This will also destroy the cultural practices of these communities as the youth will not be around enough to learn of their culture from the elders. Besides once the youth reach the metropolitan and cosmopolitan cities they are likely to forsake their culture for the popular urban cultures which leads to a change in the way the people dress, behave and in some cases it might inspire a change in religion (Moore, 2014).

Challenges Facing the Project and Their Solutions

The project faces a number of challenges that has delayed its completion date significantly. The first and most notable one is the enormous initial capital investment required. The project requires over $ 80 billion that proves to be a challenge to obtain since China is also involved in other competing development projects. This leads to sharing of the limited funds that the nation has to several of these Projects which translates to reduced funding for the project. This translates to the project taking a lot of time to complete and may even lead to compromising of quality of construction work since cheaper materials might be opted for.

Secondly, the project is also affected by several environmental issues that must be put into consideration before the project may progress from time to time. These environmental issues includes pollution, seismic nature of some parts, impact on existing water bodies and the need to conserve and preserve endangered and rare marine and aqua life. In order for the government to preserve these species it needs to relocate them to another designated area which leads to increased costs and delays.

 The political issues regarding the diversion of water from tributaries and rivers flowing into neighboring countries such as India also adversely affect the project. This leads to prolonged political discussion that delays the project further. It may also lead to these countries restricting China on the amount of water that it will divert which will lead to less water being available for the project and may even lead to increased tension among these countries which may spill over to acts of aggression.

Another challenge that the project faces is the increase in the risk of salt water intrusion. This leads to the water not being suitable for drinking, agriculture and for most industrial uses. This also calls for use of expensive desalination processes to make the water useful again. High   water prices to farmers and other consumers is also another challenge that must be dealt with. These high prices are charged in order to recover part of the capital invested and to enable routine maintenance to be carried out as well as expand the project to other areas.

The project is also quite enormous and complex thus it poses a few engineering problems. A case in point is construction of an underground water channel under lakes and rivers to channel the water without contaminating it. This poses unique and very complex problems for the design and construction team which may ultimately lead to increased costs and time spent on the project.

Problems encountered in relocating people such as the compensation funds, corruption and protests also adversely affect the project. The government pays a significant amount of money to relocate usually a large number of people from area where reservoirs are to be constructed. However a majority of the relocated people protest that they are not contented with the amount of compensation money as it is not enough to cover the loss of their homes and their livelihood. Several officials have been accused of corruption in claiming and allocation of this compensation funds.

These problems may be solved by application of specific remedy for each identified flaws. The government should appeal to international lenders and domestic lenders to loan it the necessary fund that are required to keep the project going at a reasonable pace. China should also appeal to its friends to join in a little and help with the burden of financing the project. The country may also cut down on its spending in other areas and use the funds to realize the project. The government should also intensify its efforts to combat corruption which might adversely affect the progress of the project.

The government should also offer adequate compensation to the relocated people to enable them to start their lives on an almost equivalent status to that they were on in their previous homes so as to reduce protests and public uproar and at the same time drum for support from the public. The government should hire scientists and other experts who will predict if the water will be contaminated or not so as to avoid poisoning of lakes and rivers. The government should also create parks and sanctuaries for rare and endangered species that might be affected by the project. This will help conserve China’s biodiversity and also boost its tourism sector.

The government should seek other complementary projects that will ease pressure on water resources in the south such as encouraging innovativeness to cheaper ways of desalinization of sea and ocean water. It should also consult with the neighboring countries that are affected by the project so as to iron out the thorny issues so to eliminate future conflicts that might cause delays to the project. However the most effective solution would be to cut down on the demand of water in China. This can be done by coming up with innovation that will reduce the amount of water required in manufacturing, mining and irrigation activities.

Problems Faced by the Researcher and Remedies  

The researcher encountered several problems in the course of this research. One of them was inadequate time for data collection. This is due to the magnitude of the area the project covers which would require a very long time to satisfactorily cover and people involved thus questionnaires used would be many and would take a long time to have them filled. This can be solved by dividing the research team into several groups and assigning each group to a particular task or region. Alternatively, the research could be narrowed down to cover a smaller area or only part of the intended topics.  Another problem faced is the language barrier this is due to the fact that the researcher has a limited command of the Chinese language and the people he is interviewing don’t understand English and this leads to a communication barrier which hinders the research process. This can be solved by hiring an interpreter with the command of both languages to mediate in between thus facilitating communication. The third problem encountered is the officials giving vague information or declining to give any information regarding sensitive information such as the number of fish that died in Lake Dongping and details of what really caused the fish to die to the interviewer. This vague and incomplete information may lead to erroneous conclusion and thus the objectives of the research would not be met. This problem can be remedied by consulting secondary sources such as credible journal articles and news that would give an estimate to the numbers being sought. Alternatively, samples could be taken and analyzed to find out for instance, what caused the fish to die in Lake Dongping. The researcher also faced severe weather conditions such as rainfall and scorching sunshine. This could have been remedied by putting on the appropriate attire for the given conditions as predicted by the weather stations.    


            Fig 1: The SNWT/ SNDP.

                                    Fig:2 The Eastern bypass.

Fig:3 Elevation profile of the Eastern bypass

Fig: 4 Artist’s depiction of parallel underground tunnels under the Yellow River.


Ma, J., Sullivan, L., & Liu, N. (2003). China’s water crisis. Norwalk, CT: EastBridge.

Berrittella, M., Rehdanz, K., & Tol, R. The Economic Impact of the South-North Water Transfer Project in China: A Computable General Equilibrium Analysis. SSRN Electronic Journal.

Yanjun, L., Peng, H., Weihua, X., & Bo, L. (2012). The Research of Water Environment Cumulative Impacts of Delivery Canal on East Route of South-to-North Water Transfer Project. Procedia Engineering, 28, 287-291.

He, C., He, X., & Fu, L. (2010). China’s South-to-North Water Transfer Project: Is it Needed? Geography Compass, 4(9), 1312-1323.

Moore, S. (2014). Modernisation, authoritarianism, and the environment: the politics of China’s South–North Water Transfer Project. Environmental Politics, 23(6), 947-964.