WENXIAN, China (AFP) — Wang Weiyang beams with pride as he watches one of his work teams digging a canal by the Yellow River, part of China's most spectacular water diversion scheme ever.
But when asked if the multi-billion-dollar project will be completed on time -- that is, by the first starting gun of the 2008 Beijing Olympics -- he scratches his head.
For two years he has helped dig an approach to a pair of 4,200-metre (14,000-feet) tunnels to go under the river as part of the nation's ambitious effort to bring water from the Yangtze River to the drought-stricken north.
"The deadline is going to be very tight," said Wang, an electrical engineer with Sino-Hydro, a leading Chinese dam builder. "We are facing some unforeseen problems."
The project is one of the most awe-inspiring undertaken by China -- similar in vision to, say, the Great Wall -- and Wang and his team are just a small part of the huge machinery making it all possible.
It will take nearly half a century to complete, but those involved fear it may not be enough. Meanwhile the arid north that was supposed to benefit is becoming more parched by the year.
"Time is urgent and the task set out by our nation is arduous," the Hebei Water Bureau, one of the key organisations involved in the project, said on its website.
It is a 60-billion-dollar project that could eventually divert northward an amount of water almost equal to the annual flow of the Yellow River, China's second-largest.
It was approved in 2002 to remedy dire water shortages before the Olympics and called for diverting up to 4.5 billion cubic metres (158 billion cubic feet) of water annually to the Beijing region along an "eastern route" by 2008.
By 2010, another nine billion cubic metres are to be diverted each year along the "central route" that Wang is working on, while the carrying capacity of both lines will significantly increase by 2020.
A "western route" built along the Himalayan plateau to be completed in 2050 makes this one of the longest-term construction projects ever devised by man.
Much can go wrong within such a long time span, and much has already gone wrong.
Wang knows this only too well.
Engineers, he explained, need to ensure that the two tunnels dug into layers of unstable sediment about 15 metres below the Yellow River will be able to withstand a major earthquake.
A short section of the canal leading to the tunnels, located just west of the Henan provincial capital of Zhengzhou, has been built but the tunnelling has been delayed.
"Originally the plan was to tunnel 10 metres per day, but so far we have only dug about 30 metres since tunnelling began in July," Wang told AFP.
Wang's crew are toiling on a canal route that will be a 1,200-kilometre (750-mile) man-made river stretching from the Danjiangkou reservoir, on a major tributary of the Yangtze, to Beijing by way of Henan and Hebei provinces.
A 400-kilometre-long section of canal in Henan has not yet broken ground, and other parts of the ambitious project are also falling behind schedule due to technological difficulties and funding delays.
Hundreds of kilometres east of Wang's site in neighbouring Shandong province groundbreaking for another set of Yellow River tunnels on the project's 1,050-kilometre-long eastern route only got under way last month.
The 3.4-billion-dollar eastern line, which is largely being built along China's historic Grand Canal, was originally scheduled to start bringing water to the Beijing-Tianjin area by the end of the year.
But according to Shandong's Jilu Evening Post, the water along the 1,400-year-old Grand Canal route is far too polluted to divert, while funding for water treatment plants along the line has been slow in coming.
At the earliest, water along the eastern route will not arrive in the Beijing area until around 2010, two years behind schedule, it said.
Officials say delays on the eastern route forced the government to order the emergency completion of a long central route section between the city of Shijiazhuang and Beijing to supply water in time for the 2008 Olympics.
According to Dai Yuhua, a manager with the Beijing Water Department, the section will begin diverting up to 300 million cubic metres of water to the capital as early as April next year, the Beijing News recently reported.
Up to a third of this will be squeezed from farmers through a rural water conservation plan, while the rest will come from Hebei reservoirs, many of which are already at historic lows, state press reports said.
Ironically so, since Hebei, where more than half a million people have difficulties finding drinking water, was originally to be a major beneficiary of the diversion project.
But such issues pale when it comes to the water shortages facing the capital, it added.
"The Beijing-Shijiazhuang section of the north-south water diversion project is directly linked to supplying water for the Beijing Olympics and has become a large and serious political undertaking," the bureau said.
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