With an estimated investment of 500 billion yuan (81 billion US dollars), the south-to-north water diversion project has east, middle and west routes, transferring water to north China from the lower, middle and upper reaches of the Yangtze River, the longest in the country.
With the middle section due shortly to divert the Hanjiang River in a south-to-north direction, around 13% of increased waters will be assigned to agriculture every year, adding 6bn cubic-meters for ecological and agricultural use. The route has been planned to transfer water to Beijing, Tianjin, Henan and Hebei, key areas for the country’s industrial and agricultural output which have been increasingly plagued by water shortage.
Currently Henan is suffering the worst drought in 63 years with more than 1.8m hectares of crops thirsty for water, and producing an average output of just 10-13kg per hectare.
"With water from the diversion project, the average output would nearly triple to 26-33kg per hectare," said Huang Wei, an official with the provincial agriculture department, told official news agency Xinhua.
The project will see 9.5bn cubic meters of water per year pumped through canals and pipes from the Danjiangkou reservoir in central China's Hubei Province to the northern provinces of Henan and Hebei and to Beijing.
"The 50m cubic meters of water assigned to our county is enough to guarantee the urban use of water, so water for irrigation will not be occupied like before," said Han Xiaowei, deputy head of the water affairs bureau of Huaxian County, the largest grain-producing county in Henan.
The project was conceived by late Chinese leader Mao Zedong in 1952. The State Council approved the project in December 2002 after debate lasting nearly half a century.
However, the project has had its critics, and this week respected Asia-Pacific sustainability news service Eco-Business warned that the diversion would have a dramatic effect on the region's ecology.
"The loss of such a huge amount of water is estimated to reduce 26% of the environmental capacity of the lower and middle reaches. Thus it will weaken the self-cleaning ability and increase difficulty in water pollution control in these sections of the waterway," Eco-Business said.