On October 18, water started flowing along a 20 kilometer (12.4 mile) aqueduct from the Yellow River into a gigantic pit in Zhengzhou City. In two months this pit will turn into an artificial lake with a surface of 5.6 square kilometers (3.5 square miles).
It has taken two years of digging and has cost 1.66 billion RMB ($265 million) to make this hole in this stretch of Henan province in central China. Though its area is slightly smaller than the famously scenic West Lake in Hangzhou, its water storage capacity, at 26.8 million cubic meters (946.4 million cubic feet), is two and a half times greater than that of West Lake. The water will need to be changed four times a year, so it is estimated that nearly 90 million cubic meters (3.2 billion cubic feet) of water will need to be supplied yearly from the Yellow River. This represents 1/600th of the total annual flow of the river.
Zhengzhou is just one of the many cases where manmade lakes are diverting water from the Yellow River. For the past decade, Yinchuan City in the autonomous region of Ningxia, a typical northern city short of water, started to build itself into the “Venice of the East.” More than a dozen lakes have been created in recent years.
In Shaanxi, Inner Mongolia and Shanxi, all provinces located in western and northwestern China, the same sort of artificial-lake boom is under way.
Few people seem concerned that over the past decade the annual flow of the Yellow River is less than 20 billion cubic meters (706.3 billion cubic feet). In terms of the total volume, up to 70% of the Yellow River’s water is used by the people along its banks. Internationally, it is believed that humans should not use more than 30% of a river’s water, otherwise it will lead to the loss of ecological functions, and the river can even dry up completely.
Beyond the Yellow River, the construction of artificial lakes has been integral to China’s rapid urbanization in the past dozen years. Northern cities short of water strive to compete with the water-abundant regions south of the Yangtze River, and the watery southern region sets a higher target for water use.
Has this national fashion for artificial lakes spilled over the top? Have they been scientifically planned, with a sustainable water supply? China’s natural lakes are generally polluted, so how are the artificial lakes' environmental issues to be addressed?
Busy creating the lakes
In the summer, the city of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province announced a plan to build 28 large and medium-sized lakes at a cost of over 10 billion RMB ($1.6 billion). Meanwhile, Harbin, in the northeast province of Heilongjiang, has set itself the goal of becoming the “northern water town” by coming up with 18 artificial lakes.
These northern cities are often located in arid or semi-arid regions with limited annual precipitation. In some of them the annual evaporation is several times greater than the precipitation. For this reason they are unlikely to possess natural lakes. Yet the urban planners of these cities wish to remodel their landscape and change its nature by excavating lakes.
At the same time, in southern cities where rainfall is plentiful and the water system is interconnected, artificial lakes are being constructed as the best choice for the urban landscape.
After the eight lakes it created in 2010, Shanghai still has several other projects. Wuhan, Hubei Province, historically called the City of 100 Lakes, had let many of its natural lakes disappear, mainly over the past three decades, through land reclamation or filling. But now it is undergoing a “lake-creation movement”. Ironically, at the first site chosen, Mengze Lake vanished completely only over the last decade, and the excavation is precisely where the natural lake had been filled in.
In this lake-creation movement all over China, big cities like to boast of building “the largest artificial lake,” while each lake’s area and storage capacity is billed as greater than the one before.
Chaos over the costs
The construction costs of each of these lakes is eye-popping.
Take the 28 lakes of Xi’an as an example. A preliminary calculation of the cost of the investment involved is already up to 10 billion ($1.6 billion), as is Beijing’s city section of the Yongding River, a project that is composed of six separate lakes and 37 kilometers (23 miles) of canals connecting the lakes.
These figures are only the direct investment. The relative social costs of the excavation of a lake are huge. Dragon Lake in Zhengzhou required the demolition of 12 administrative villages and 37 natural villages, forcing 22,000 people to leave their homes.
In addition, a series of other construction projects is involved behind the lake project itself, such as new roads, flyovers and bridges.
Many of these lake-building projects will rely on the South-North water transfer project, a colossal undertaking that will divert water from the Yangtze River in the south to the Yellow River in the north.
There is a consensus among the experts interviewed that the greatest cost in creating the lakes is not the direct and indirect investments, but the effects on the water itself. For example, Ningxia’s artificial lakes take about 1 billion cubic meters (35.3 billion cubic feet) of water from the Yellow River. In the Central Route plan of the project for “diverting water from south to north,” the price per cubic meter (35.3 cubic feet) is nearly 10 Yuan ($1.60); cost to the region is nearly 10 billion ($1.6 billion).
Li Qilei, professor at the Water and Development Research Institute of Chang’an University, as well as a task-force member for Xi’an’s lake creation, conceded to Caixin that the current water supply to Xi’an is inadequate to support the planned 28 lakes. Only in a few years' time, when the project of “moving Han River water to the Wei River” is formally started, can the city’s artificial lakes assume the function of water regulation and have a sufficient water supply at the same time.
This kind of excessive use of water comes with an immeasurable ecological cost. The amount of water flowing from the Yellow River into the sea continues to decrease. The rate was more than 50 billion cubic meters (1.8 trillion cubic feet) in the 1950s, but today the amount of water reaching the sea has dropped below 20 billion cubic meters (706.3 billion cubic feet).
The Bohai Sea is suffering a serious imbalance of its nitrogen to phosphorus ratio. In 2008, it had a ratio of 67. In certain parts of the bay today, the ratio is more than 200 four times the ratio considered ecologically damaging.
Indeed, Bohai Sea's once abundant fishing stock has all but evaporated, while other smaller marine organisms have become extinct. Even though this situation involves excessive fishing and pollution, many experts believe that the reduced injection of fresh water probably also plays an important role.
A man-made disaster
While new lakes are being created, a series of problems of pollution, eutrophication and maintenance have already appeared in a number of existing lakes.
Completed in 1980, Xiliu Lake was once a postcard spot of Zhengzhou City. Through a lack of supervision and management, it was turned into a dumping pit for construction waste and industrial wastewater. By 2010, the pollution was so bad that a large area of the lake had dried up. The garbage and sewage seriously affect the lives of the nearby residents.
Cui Guangbai, professor of the Institute of Water Resources at Hohai University, notes that construction of an artificial lake is a very complex project. Since they are “pools” without the functions of a natural lake, the work is not finished when the lake is completed. The real challenge is to manage the lake and to maintain the water quality afterwards.
Artificial lakes are not unique to China. Appropriate construction of such lakes can beautify cities and bring benefits to the public. Not all of them are unacceptable. The question is, has the lake-creation trend gone too far in China?
Several scholars when interviewed pointed out that the building of artificial lakes is “messy accounting,” with construction greenlighted solely by the local authority. There is no debate on environmental issues, no public participation, and no supervision of the costs involved.
To the local government, water resources are a hidden cost that does not need to be taken into consideration. What they are considering is another calculation. Only the cost of construction and of relocating residents is taken into account, while the lake is seen as upgrading the city and increasing land and property values. For officials this is the payoff.
Weng Lida, a famous hydrologist, pointed out that Ningxia, Gansu, and Shaanxi are all expecting to use the water that they get from the South-North Water Transfer Project to fill up their lakes. “In the context of these cities, which all seriously lack water, how to distribute the water supply is a very complex and difficult issue," Weng says. "If this issue is not solved, what’s the point of building these artificial lakes?”