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