"This is untrue," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said when asked to comment at a news conference in Beijing on Tuesday about the South China Morning Post (SCMP) report.
The SCMP on Monday quoted "experts" as saying that the ongoing construction of a 600-kilometer-long water tunnel in Southwest China's Yunnan Province would be a "rehearsal" of new technology, engineering methods and equipment needed for the tunnel, which is expected to extend as long as 1,000 kilometers, and would divert the Yarlung Zangbo River in the southern Tibet Autonomous Region to the Taklamakan Desert in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
The chief engineer of the Yunnan water tunnel project dismissed the report when interviewed by the Global Times. "There is no such direction from the central government, and I've never heard of any plan laid out for a Tibet-Xinjiang tunnel project," said Zhao Shijie, chief engineer of the Dianzhong water diversion project, a scheme in central Yunnan.
Zhao told the Global Times that it is not the first time he has heard rumors about a Tibet-Xinjiang tunnel, but they are baseless.
The Yunnan water diversion project which involves tunnel construction works exceeding 600 kilometers is designed to address a severe water shortage in the province's central region. It began on August 4.
According to the People's Daily on August 7, with a total length of 661.07 kilometers, the diversion project will bring water from the Jinsha River to cities including Lijiang and Kunming. The construction is expected to take 96 months.
The total fund for the Yunnan water diversion project is estimated at more than 78 billion yuan ($11.8 billion), according to a budget released in the second quarter of 2016, reported Yunnan.cn.
The idea of sending Tibetan water to Xinjiang dates back to the late 1950s. "March into the Desert," a famous article by meteorologist, geologist and educator Zhu Kezhen (1890-1974) that has long featured in Chinese schoolbooks, advises diverting water to Xinjiang's arid plains.
A plan to divert water from Tibet to the northern parts of China was heatedly discussed in the 1990s. Over the decade, 208 lawmakers and 118 political advisers raised proposals and motions on the plan, according to a 2006 report by the Southern Weekly.
However, the dream of massive water diversions has never been approved due to concerns of the huge cost and potential for damaging the landscape.
"I firmly oppose the project, as Xinjiang cannot afford this project," said Mei Xinyu, an associate researcher at the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation.
The estimated cost of diverting water from Tibet to Xinjiang would be five times that of Xinjiang's annual GDP.
It may depend massively on central government subsidies and the assistance of local governments in other regions, which likely would lead to social instability, Mei added.
This story, written by Deng Xiaoci, was originally published in the Global Times.