Conservation efforts look to turn China’s Grand Canal into World Heritage site

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Traffic on the Grand Canal near HangzhouThe Grand Canal, a 1,800 kilometer-long waterway stretching from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south linking six of China’s river systems – the Yellow, the Huai, the Qiantang, the Wei, the Hai and the Yangtze – is seeing a revival of conservation efforts following the establishment of a national organization to protect the world’s oldest canal system.

Conservation of the canal was on the agenda at the most recent meeting of China’s top political advisory body – the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. The body has been pushing to have the canal listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site within five years. But conservation of the waterway could prove difficult. Stretches of the northern most sections of the canal have dried up or become impassable pools of wastewater. Today only 1000 kilometers of the canal remains in operation.

David Lague reported yesterday in The New York Times that a US$250 million makeover that began in 2001 has improved water quality and spurred urban renewal and a small 24-mile section of the canal near Hangzhou, but that cleaning up the entire canal could take years and cost as much as US$2.5 billion.

“There is a lack of awareness about the canal,” said Luo Zhewen, an expert in ancient architecture at the State Bureau of Cultural Heritage and a leading authority on the Great Wall. “It is a living relic, not just something from the past.”

Despite the fact that the canal is no longer navigable between Beijing and the city of Jining in Shandong Province, about one-third of its length, the remaining section south to Hangzhou remains in heavy use.

More than 100,000 vessels ply the canal each year, carrying about 260 million tons of goods including coal and construction materials, according to figures released by the Ministry of Communications in March. That is three times as much cargo as is carried on the Beijing-Shanghai railway.

“The canal connects major coal bases in the north and serves as a cheap and convenient channel to transport coal to the fast developing Yangtze River Delta,” Zhou Liang, an official with the Ministry of Communications, said.

Shandong, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang provinces are planning to invest US$2.56 billion on dredging the waterway over the next three years which is expected to increase transportation capacity by 40 percent according to official statistics. When the project is completed, the canal will have a minimum of level-3 navigation ability, allowing 1,000-ton vessels to steam from Dongping Lake in Shandong province to Hangzhou.

At present, the section south of the Yangtze River only has a level-4 navigational ability.