Why does China continue to build such grandiose projects when other nations are busy dismantling megadams for smaller, more environmentally friendly schemes? The answer largely lies with one man: China's No. 2 leader, Li Peng. A Soviet-trained engineer and one of the instigators of the Tiananmen massacre, Li likes to think big, even though many deputies whisper that fixing Beijing's 800,000 leaky faucets or teaching citizens basic water-saving tips would be greater value-for-money.
Government officials estimate the water diversion will cost $63.5 billion, largely to be financed by China's already cash-strapped government and banks. Because no one is quite sure if the prosaically named South-North Water Transfer Project will even work, it's easy to imagine the tab running even higher. The Three Gorges Dam, another Li Peng pet project, was initially slated at $6 billion, but officials now admit that the real figure is closer to $25 billion. Some of the extra outlay was the result of rampant corruption, but much was due to the fact that the original budget grossly underestimated the costs of building the world's largest hydroelectric dam.
Li Peng has staked his last bit of prestige on his newest plan and considers it his swan song before he is scheduled to retire next year. But bureaucrats who are supposed to be touting the plan are sketchy on hard details of how 50 billion cu m of water will be diverted annually—more than the Yellow River's total yearly drainage. Especially tricky will be construction of the westernmost channel, which will require enormous tunnels through some of China's most forbidding mountainous terrain.
In fact, the water-diversion scheme received its first round of approval from China's Cabinet in 1991, without so much as a feasibility study. Then, Li presented the plan to the national parliament as a fait accompli. Now, engineers are scrambling to actualize what they had earlier dismissed as a mere Li pipe dream. Zhang Jiyao, Vice Minister of the Water Resources Ministry, maintains that "consensus has been reached on all aspects of the project." Government-contracted civil engineers privately say the only consensus is that construction will begin next year without the proper infrastructure research or ecological-impact surveys. Says a Beijing engineer privy to what few blueprints are available: "Li Peng wants to be remembered as an Emperor who created something very grand, and there's no doubt he will go down in history for creating something huge: China's biggest environmental disaster."