China: Chairman Mao’s Dream Water Project May Benefit Beijing At Expense Of Farmers

By Violet Law

BAODING, China — Chairman Mao had a dream. And now, nearly 60 years after he first outlined it for the Chinese people, the dream is becoming a part of the landscape. Mao’s dream was to make water plentiful in Beijing, the teeming, thirsty capital, and the rest of the dry North China Plain. China could achieve that, the chairman said, by pumping water from the wet southern regions of the country where the monsoon washed the land and floods regularly tormented the people. But the water in the south was nearly 2,000 miles away. A network of canals and pipelines would have to be built and it would cost a fortune.

Now something is happening. The first segment of Chairman Mao’s dream project was completed just before world attention focused on China last August, as it hosted the 2008 Olympic Games. It was a 190-mile stretch of pipes and canals linking Beijing with a huge reservoir and running through this small farm town, at the midway point, 90 miles south of the capital. Eventually, three sets of pipelines and canals are expected to traverse at least half-a-dozen provinces and cost an estimated $60 billion, double the cost of the Three Gorges Dam, previously China’s most expensive water project and still under construction. The 190-mile section is just the start of what is to come. And it is not everyone’s dream come true.

For some, the pipeline is another chapter in a tale of inequity over water and its bountiful benefits that has been evolving in China for centuries. More than most other countries, huge, sprawling China, now with more than 1.3 billion people and surging economic growth, has struggled to find a balance between the needs of Beijing and other cities that give it its industrial might and the vast wheat and soy fields and rice paddies that feed its people. The pipeline project gives priority to the cities in the north. It is designed to take water from reservoirs supplied by rivers which, in turn, rely on rainfall. Government officials say that over the long run the pipeline will not create a competition between the cities and the nation’s farmers for the same water. The farmers, they say, rely on water from aquifers or underground lakes. They drill wells into the aquifers and pump out water for their crops. The water going to Beijing is to come from reservoirs. But that is the dream for tomorrow. The story today is precisely that farmers and their crops are suffering to provide the security of abundant water for Beijing.

Wang Hao, a government researcher and planner who has been working on the big project at the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower, said that after a steady flow of water has been established for Beijing and the rest of the North China Plan, the government will turn its attention to the farmers. Secondary pipelines, he said, may be added to provide water for the farmers. Some analysts say the water issue raises questions about China’s long-term ability to feed itself. The government has not drawn attention to the matter and European researchers say they have not been able to learn much about the potential impact of the pipeline on food production. Some experts say it seems inevitable that China will eventually be forced to import more food. One bright, cloudless morning here in Baoding, Jie Shengpo, a farmer and a son of a farmer, cast an envious eye at the water flowing placidly north toward the capital of China in a broad, shallow canal down the hill from his small plot. “This is Beijing’s water,” he said.

Mr. Jie’s family settled in the region generations ago. They used to get water from wells that they sank 200 feet into an underground lake. But they and other farm families have been drawing out water for their crops faster than the underground lakes can replenish themselves. For their latest well, Mr. Jie had to drive pipe 450 feet to find adequate water. Sometimes, Mr. Jie, 59, said, even the deepest well does not produce the water he needs. To cope with less water, Mr. Jie and his neighbors have turned to other crops. Instead of rice and wheat, they now grow corn. Corn is not widely eaten in China. But Mr. Jie and the others sell their corn to the government which uses some of it to make ethanol that is mixed with gasoline to power cars and trucks. Life is harsh in Baoding. And water is a big part of the problem. Many of Mr. Jie’s neighbors say they are barely making ends meet. They turn to “Old Man Heaven” for more rain. But more often than not, they end up paying to draw water from a communal well. The cost is $4.30 or 30 Yuan an hour, said Wang Changching, a mushroom farmer. One hour on the pump costs about a third of the $13.50 average weekly income of Chinese farmers. Mr. Wang goes to the communal pump as little as he can.

In Beijing, Junfeng Zhang, the director of Green Remote, a nongovernmental organization working on the environment, said that while the government works on building the network to the south, water flowing through the 190-mile stretch passing Baoding will come at the expense of the farmers. Both the canals in that stretch and the underground reservoirs rely on rainfall. There is essentially, one source of water, he said. “It is undeniably true,” Mr. Zhang said, that the water that would feed the just completed section is the same water that the farmers would rely on. Much of the rainwater falling from the sky or running off the ground goes to the canals and eventually to the underground lakes. If it is drawn from the canal and pumped north, it never reaches the underground lakes – and the farmers. Mr. Zhang said some farmers in Baoding have told him they have abandoned their fields for lack of water. While the 190-mile section was being built, Mr. Jie took a job as a ditch-digger.

During the Olympics, the government decided not to make much of a fuss over the pipeline. Because of unusually heavy rainfall around Beijing, there was no need to begin pumping water through it. This spring, the government conducted a trial run, At least for the time being, the government said, Beijing had enough water and the pipeline would only be used in emergencies. Government officials are now looking to 2014 as the opening date for the long, central and eastern fingers of the three-channel project. With water flowing through the pipelines, Beijing will be able to stop drawing water from its underground lakes or aquifers. They have become dangerously depleted, experts say. They may restore themselves in a decade or so if the city’s pumps remain turned off. Chairman Mao’s dream had its origin deep in Chinese history. Mark Elvin captured the long view of water in China in his book, Retreat of the Elephants, and an Environmental History of China. Part of Chairman Mao’s dream project, Mr. Elvin said in the book, is being built in the path of the Grand Canal that the emperors in the Sui Dynasty completed around 600 A.D. “No other society,” Mr. Elvin said, “reshaped its hydraulic landscape with such sustained energy.” #


Photo by Du Bin

Construction on canal and pipeline to Beijing.

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