Ghosts by the Water Line

China has moved mountains and dammed rivers to pump water to a thirsty Beijing, but the colossal project could destroy the lives of millions in the heartland.

On a rainy evening in September 2015, the fisherman Cao Suizhou, his hand on the diesel engine, steers his small motorboat by sightline of the shore. There are no stars visible above, nor lights from homes along the boundary of the water.

This is not a natural lake, but a vast, man-made reservoir — and the site of ongoing controversy and clashing ambitions in central China. The Danjiangkou reservoir — created by the damming of a major Yangtze River tributary in the late 1950s — was expanded in 2011 so that it now holds almost 30 billion cubic meters of water, which runs from the artificial lake to Beijing through an open concrete canal 790 miles long, comparable to the full length of Texas.

The channel, known as the central leg of the South-to-North Water Transfer Project, was built as a lifeline to supply water to China’s dry and populous northeast. Four-fifths of the country’s water naturally flows through the south, yet the burgeoning capital, two-thirds of China’s agricultural land, and much of the country’s heavy industry are in the parched north. In the northern plains, over-pumped and dwindling aquifers already endanger the nation’s breadbasket. The channel brought some relief when its water began flowing through Beijing’s faucets about a year ago.

Cao Suizhou, a fisherman on the Danjiangkou reservoir, has been forcibly relocated three times for the country’s colossal water projects. Each time, he has had to rebuild his life from scratch. “We know we can’t fight it or change anything,” Cao said, “but people in Beijing should know where their water is coming from.” Photo credit: Sharron Lovell

But the ambitious project, conceived in the 1950s by Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, has also transformed the lives of those in the region from which water was taken — a disruption of a far greater extent than planners anticipated, or admit today.

According to figures published in state media, about 340,000 people were relocated before the rising waters of the reservoir flooded their homes. However, interviews in the fall of 2015 with residents and a mayor in the region upstream of the dam reveal that many more were forced to move — perhaps more than a half-million, according to the mayor of Xichuan, a county seat upstream of the dam in the province of Henan. Moreover, since 2003 when the central leg of the water-diversion project was green-lit, crucial streams of investment in infrastructure and business have all but drained from the upstream region — a swath of Henan, Hubei, and Shaanxi provinces that is home to about 17 million people — leaving behind a landscape of potholed roads, unmaintained schools, and closed factories and mines. “There is no long-term plan for economic development there, because they always knew the water-transfer project was coming,” said Zhang Kelou, an accountant in Henan’s provincial capital; his clients have included Zhengzhou-based owners of shuttered mines and industries operating in the upstream area.

A fishing team works on the Danjiangkou reservoir. While the government has drastically improved resettlement policies in recent years, actual implementation remains wracked with corruption. Photo credit: Sharron Lovell

When Cao’s little craft docks on the muddy shore of the reservoir, two friends help him unload a half-dozen plastic foam crates of tiny silver fish, the evening’s catch. As a light rain grows stronger, Cao straps a flashlight to his straw hat and the small team works quickly in the dark to haul and pack the crates into a waiting truck.

For most of his life, Cao, now in his mid-50s, lived in a small village near the shoreline. Before the water level surged, most of his neighbors boarded chartered buses bound for New Caowan, a relocation village of government-built housing 100 miles away; now all that remains of their former home is a crumbling stone water tower and a nearby field of unmarked graves. Cao’s wife, Jia Gailan, moved to New Caowan in 2009 and now looks after their two young granddaughters there, but she said that most migrants have struggled to find new work and many complain of poor-quality soil and land. “The young people still leave their homes to find work in factories. But for the older people, their past work and income [have] disappeared.”

Meanwhile, Cao was determined to continue fishing. “It’s the only life I’ve ever known, the only thing I know how to do,” he said, adding that he is too old to be hired for factory work. With no fixed home, he sometimes sleeps in his boat, sometimes stays in a nearby village with friends there who are among the last to remain in their homes. It is a precarious existence: New government regulations expected to be enforced within the next year will prohibit the kind of fish-farming in wooden cages on the reservoir that brings in most of his income.

Past midnight, the fish truck bumps along a rough road of gravel and mud. There are no streetlights here. Cao, typically at work before dawn, has been fairly lucky, compared to many. He found a way to continue fishing and has made enough money to support his family, including his granddaughter’s treatment for lymphoma. But if fishing on the reservoir is soon banned, can he reinvent himself again? Cao isn’t sentimental, but he doesn’t have a plan for the future, either. “When I get old, what can I do if I get a disease and have no money? I can only wait to die.”

In a country of 1.4 billion souls, sweeping national policy decisions invariably disrupt lives, lifting some industries at the expense of others, privileging some regions over others, and forcing millions of people to adapt. In the case of the South-to-North Water Transfer Project, it’s too soon to assess the final legacy — and whether the painful trade-offs will be worth it. But one thing is already clear: Even the diverted water will quench Beijing’s thirst only for so long.

Danjiangkou locals bathe downstream of the dam and reservoir. Construction started in the late 1950s and has forced several waves of mass relocations since. Reservoir capacity was increased again in 2009 to supply the South-to-North Water Transfer Project. Photo credit: Sharron Lovell

Danjiangkou dam, the concrete edifice raised to create the water diversion, is now an unlikely tourist attraction, with a forlorn holiday hotel situated opposite the compound’s front gate. For a modest entrance fare, visitors can ride an open cart across the top of the dam, stopping for scenic photos.

Looking north toward the reservoir, the view is almost pastoral: a muted canvas of green and brown. Nothing has been built here for more than a decade, and much of what had previously been built, like Cao’s village, has since been torn down. Turning in the opposite direction, the contrast is stark. Downstream unspools the usual cacophony of Chinese development: apartment buildings, shopping malls, construction cranes, and even a Ferris wheel, all signs of haphazard economic life.

Tour guides in hard hats present the dam as an engineering marvel — a testament to Chinese modernization and the state’s ability to tame the natural landscape. Yet, a different story of the dam’s history and long-term impacts comes from Pei Jianjun, mayor of Xichuan, the county in western Henan province with a population of about 750,000 in which the reservoir and the canal head are located.

Once, Xichuan was the seat of a powerful regional kingdom, the Chu, as bronze relics on display at a municipal history museum attest. But today, it is an economically depressed area, and there’s nothing grand about the dilapidated downtown: City Hall is flanked by a small fenced yard used as a chicken coop.

An abandoned home in the village of Wu Ying, which emptied out before the dam was raised. Just two homes remain occupied. Villagers left behind have seen land and infrastructure submerged. Photo credit: Sharron Lovell

Pei said his family has lived in the region for 700 years. During different stages of the dam’s construction and subsequent raising, spanning more than 50 years, from the 1950s until 2011, different sets of his relatives were evicted on six separate occasions. “The first time that I remember was when I was 7 years old,” he recalls, waving a cigarette after lunch. “The water was coming, so all of us just had to leave.” He has collected firsthand accounts of several families in his book, Century Migrants, an investigative history of the long-term social impacts of the Danjiangkou dam construction.

The dam was initially built to control flooding on the Han River, a large tributary of the Yangtze. The first forced relocations in the 1950s were disastrous: Of 30,000 mostly poor farmers uprooted and sent to live in China’s frontier regions of Xinjiang and Qinghai, with no preparation to survive in desert climates, only 3,000 survived, according to Pei’s research. “It was a terrible failure and tragedy,” he said. When the dam was raised in the 1960s and 1970s, further families were sent packing, mostly to other villages in Henan and Hubei provinces. Pei recalls his family’s moving in 1974, when he was a child.

Most recently, beginning in 2003, local officials fanned out to inform the latest round of families, Cao’s included, that they would have to move for another dam raising. Unlike in the past, the aim was not blunt eviction, but rather to cajole residents into consenting to the inevitable. By the standards of the past, the most recent expulsion was the most humane: With money from the central government, local authorities at least attempted to compensate migrants for lost land and property.

A view of Xichuan. Hundreds of local mines were also ordered to close by the central government, an accountant from Zhengzhou said, to prevent pollution from leaching into water bound for Beijing.A view of Xichuan. Hundreds of local mines were also ordered to close by the central government, an accountant from Zhengzhou said, to prevent pollution from leaching into water bound for Beijing. Image Credit: Sharron Lovell

But whether reimbursement schemes were enacted fairly or disastrously varied greatly across the region. After examining the petitions of 248 migrant families in Xichuan in 2012, Feng Hu, a local prosecutor, compiled the most common grievances: shoddy home-building quality, smaller or less productive plots of farmland, fake residence permits, difficulty finding new employment, and compensation payments swallowed by local corruption. (In other relocation villages, as Kathleen McLaughlin has reported in the Global Post, the farmers’ mandatory contributions to their new homes have left them deeply in debt.) Cao’s wife, Jia, adds another complaint: more severe pollution near her new home. “I can’t sleep well in the new village; the air quality is not good,” she said. “I don’t like to use the local water for tea, because there’s a lot of contamination.”

Ironically, stringent measures were enacted near the reservoir itself to protect its water quality. Mayor Pei said that 238 factories in and near Xichuan were shut down. Following directives from the central government, hundreds of local mines were also closed to prevent pollution from leeching into water bound for Beijing. Meanwhile, to prevent agricultural runoff, farmers in the catchment area are banned from spraying chemical fertilizers or pesticides, though the level of enforcement remains unclear. While the natural environment has noticeably improved, said Pei, new job opportunities have not replaced those lost from the shuttered brick factories and paper mills. He estimates the direct economic cost to Xichuan to be $123 million annually, a hefty price for a small county.

Pei stresses the extent of the region’s sacrifice for the sake of a national project benefiting Beijing, including, he said, some 500,000 displaced people, as well as broad economic setbacks to the area as a whole. However, the mayor says, at least on the record, that he is not pessimistic about Xichuan’s future. He hopes that, in place of mining and other polluting industries, that his city can foster “tourism and sustainable agriculture” as eco-friendly economic alternatives. Yet he gave few concrete details about how to make these appealing notions happen.

Not far outside the city, an old farmer was sprinkling pellets from a plastic bucket on rows of green vegetable shoots. The fertilizer mixture was made from bird droppings, he said, adding that it was more effective on certain crops than commercial additives. Yet he continues to spray chemical fertilizer and pesticides on his cornfields, having never heard of the ban Pei mentioned. The man said he is open to new farming ideas, if they work. But so far, neither he nor other farmers nearby reported having been informed of any government program or support for building another, more sustainable future. 

One of the last remaining residents of the village of Wu Ying prepares fish for a meal. After 2009, when new construction on the dam brought the reservoir level almost 50 feet higher, only two houses remained in this “ghost village.” Photo credit: Sharron Lovell

Yu Baojiang and Wang Dong’er, an elderly couple, live at the top of a steep hill overlooking the reservoir. They remain in one of the last two occupied houses of another village on the edge of the reservoir emptied out before the dam was raised. The government projected that virtually all their neighbors’ homes would be submerged, but that their old brick house would be, narrowly, spared. And so, while most of the villagers were escorted to chartered buses and sent away to relocation sites, they were told to simply stay in what Wang now calls a “ghost village.” Today they have less farmland, as their fields were partially submerged, and less company. “Everyone else is gone, and we are so lonely here,” Wang said. How strange, she reflects, how much depends upon a seemingly arbitrary boundary: where the water line falls.

What Beijing’s planners haven’t anticipated is that they may not fully control the water line in the future. Engineering blueprints for the water-diversion project date back more than a decade, but China’s climate is rapidly changing, as warming temperatures melt the glaciers that feed all of Asia’s great rivers — including the Yangtze. Between 2002 and 2014, Chinese scientists calculate that glaciers in Tibet and Xinjiang shrunk by 13 percent. Rainfall patterns are also shifting, though scientists offer different projections as to how global warming will remap the Asian monsoon. “The weather in China has been changing,” as Deborah Tan of the Hong Kong-based consultancy China Water Risk told The Guardian, “and this is something that is beyond everyone’s control.”

If the original calculations that central China can afford to divert its water turn out to be wrong, that will also have long-term impacts for Cao and his neighbors. “Water is this fundamental lubricant for urban and industrial growth,” said Britt Crow-Miller, a geographer at Portland State University in Oregon, who conducted doctoral thesis research on the water-diversion project. “If you are transferring water away from your community, you’re really transferring [away] long-term opportunity” for agriculture or future industries that depend on access to water. “So, what does it mean for these places that down the road will not have access to adequate water resources, potentially?”

Whether history judges the water-diversion project a saving grace or a supreme folly depends on whether Beijing and the rest of northern China can use “the time that has been borrowed,” as the Beijing-based environmentalist Ma Jun puts it, to significantly increase water efficiency and stem demand in the region. “Now we need to shift our priorities from expansion of the water supply to conservation,” he said. “Even if the transfer will help to delay a crisis from coming, how do we use that additional time? We cannot continue the old ways of wasteful and inefficient water use. If we don’t use this precious time properly, we could soon face another water crisis.”

“There’s still a worry that even this water transfer will not be enough to cover up the gaps in the future,” Ma warns. In other words, the costly and risky project may only be a band-aid solution. “Before we attempt any future radical projects, we must be sure we have exhausted all the conservation methods possible.”

Sharron Lovell contributed reporting.

This project was produced in collaboration with ChinaFile, a project of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society, and with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Top photo credit: Sharron Lovell

Christina Larson is an award-winning science and technology journalist based in Beijing. (@larsonchristina)