By HENRY SANDERSON
BEIJING - China is delaying part of its plan to divert water from its major rivers across hundreds of (miles) kilometers to the booming cities in its arid north because it needs more time to resettle the more than 300,000 people who will be displaced by the project.
Zhang Jiyao, the minister in charge of the venture, said Monday that the central route of the plan will not be finished until 2014 instead of 2010.
"We are concerned about the resettlement of people and the original plan needs to be improved. We are going to make the resettlement work well," he told The Associated Press.
When completed, the project's three routes will move billions of tons (metric tons) of water from China's central, southern and western regions through pipes and man-made canals to Beijing and other fast-growing cities in the country's north. The estimated $62 billion project will pass by 44 cities, and could be nearly three times as expensive as the Three Gorges Dam, China's last mega-project.
Critics have warned that the project will cause environmental damage and still not quench the thirst of China's northern boomtowns.
Probe International, a Canadian environmental group, said in a report last summer that the long-distance diversion of water is extremely expensive and environmentally damaging. It said even with the water transfer, Beijing will still rely on its already depleted groundwater.
Local media in central Hubei province, where the central route to Beijing starts, quoted local officials in December as saying the project's delay was indeed due to environmental concerns, an unusual open admission of problems.
Wang Fangyu, deputy head of the Hubei group working on the project, was quoted as saying the project would have a "profound influence on the ecology of the Han river basin." Zou Qingping, a local environmental official, was quoted as saying there was concern pollution from other rivers could spread into the Han through the canals.
On Monday, Zhang said the report was "groundless" and that worries over pollution were not the reason for the delay.
Zhang did acknowledge that the diversion project was a "transitional measure" and would not solve the problems of water shortages in north China. He said people needed to start conserving water more.
The World Bank said in a report Monday that China needs to improve the management of its water resources and move toward a more market-based system.
This includes increasing the price of water to make people use less and to reflect water's true value as a scarce resource, a summary of the report said.
"The combined pressures of rising water demand over limited supplies and deteriorating water quality from widespread pollution, suggests that a severe water scarcity crisis is emerging," it said.