Work begins on huge China water-diversion project
When finished, three canals will carry 45 billion cubic metres of water a year from major rivers in the south about 1,300 km (810 miles) to thirsty regions in the north.
The diverted water will help about 300 million people in nine provinces, media said.
"The South-North water project is a water resource adjustment project that will cover more than half of China," Xu Xinyi, a top official involved in the project, told state television.
"It will bring great benefits to the economy, our society and the environment," he said.
The project, first conceived by late Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong 50 years ago, was officially launched at a ceremony attended by Premier Zhu Rongji in the capital Beijing last week.
It is scheduled to be finished in 2050, China Central Television said.
With overall investment estimated at $59 billion, the project could end up costing twice as much as the controversial Three Gorges hydropower dam, the official Xinhua news agency said.
CONTROVERSY MARS PROJECT
Controversy has surrounded the south-to-north water project, with both Chinese and foreign environmental experts saying it could spur widespread corruption, environmental damage and dry up the flood-prone Yangtze river in 30 years.
The three south-to-north canals, which will stretch across the eastern, middle and western parts of China, will eventually link the country's four major rivers - the Yangtze River, Yellow River, Huaihe River and the Haihe River, Xinhua said.
CCTV showed dozens of women in white traditional outfits beating red drums at one of the project's main construction sites in eastern Jiangsu province to mark the start of the first phase, which is expected to take five years.
Areas expected to benefit the most include Beijing, the northern port city of Tianjin and the eastern provinces of Jiangsu and Shandong, Xinhua said.
Coastal Shandong province suffered its most serious drought in a century this year, according to the China Daily.
China's water crisis is widely believed to be partly man-made. Unchecked industrial development has dried up rivers, wells and lakes.