China's new dam-migrants
"Make a contribution to the South-North water transfer scheme, migrate and settle down to boost development"....propaganda sign adorning houses in one Chinese village where people are expected to move.
One morning in April 2003, Niu Youcheng, Beijing's vice mayor, was handed a bottle, filled with the water of a reservoir on the Yangtze River 800 miles away.
This was the signal for the start of China's, indeed the world's, biggest civil engineering project ever. Bigger even than the Three Dams Project that caused such huge controversy. This one, the long-planned South-North Water Transfer Scheme, will channel part of the Yangze River in the south right up to the China's Yellow River and the North China plain.
The massive project has three phases.
The first will enlarge the existing Danjiangkou reservoir on the Han River. The second will take water from the Yangse's mouth across Shandong Province on the North China Plain to the new megacity of Tianjin. The third, even bigger, will divert water from the Yangze near its source in Tibet, through tunnels up to 65 miles long to end up in the Yellow River. It might even include the building of another dam, this time bigger than any built before. The time frame for all three phases is twenty years.
Once completed, the system will siphon north three times as much water as the whole of England uses in a year. But many Chinese people are up in arms over it. They say it is a "megalomaniacal folly" and argue the money should be spent instead on improving China's water efficiency. Fred Pearce, in his book When The Rivers Run Dry, quotes the journalist Ma Jun: "Chinese factories use ten times more water than most developed countries to produce the same products. Chinese irrigation uses twice as much".
When governments engage in momentous projects, then ordinary people's interests usually get cast aside. Indeed, in China, this has become something of a mantra. Chinese people are expected to sacrifice their personal interests for the good of the nation. The Three Gorges Dam dismantled the livelihoods of nearly one and a half million people. Yes, they got rehoused someplace else but many of them complained that their new conditions were much poorer. There were huge clashes that dogged the moves, leaving resentments to fester.
This time, the government has said that 330,000 residents must move, over the next five years starting in June. It will offer them homes and farms somewhere nextdoor, in Henan or Hubei provinces. But Chris Buckley, writing for Reuters, checked out the experiences of people in Xichuan who had moved earlier when the dam was built there. He found that the people were still angry at what occurred. They said the distant land they were offered was "too poor, too little and boded no end to lifelong insecurity". Now this may be just the grouses of traditional peasants not wanting to move to a new life somewhere.
Chris Buckley points out that about twelve and a half million people have already been moved for the building of 86,000 dams since 1949 and these dam-migrants have long fanned the simmering unrest. The figures of rural protests in China continues to rise each year. Some experts reckon as many as four million rural people now protest a year in up to 80,000 demonstrations, although official figures are around 26,000 protests.
Many of the people dislocated by the Xichuan dam had already moved several times earlier to escape other new reservoirs. Chris Buckley points out that "thousands died of starvation in one distant exodus soon after dam building began in 1958". Machuan village lies beside the existing Danjiangkou dam. It has to be raised by 13 metres as part of the project so that the people of Beijing and Tianjin can receive good drinking water, and to make way for the canals and tunnels to be built for the Water Trasfer Scheme. The 1,000 or so villagers have just begun to protest over the likely disruption. 60 year old farmer Chai Fangying knows what the move will mean. She has already been moved before because of the dam. Other people, too, in the village know about the experiences of farmers who moved earlier. They know how people were forced out in hurried, unplanned evacuations and were paid peanuts in compensation. The villagers are furious, too, because of the project's endless delays already: the finished waterway was planned to open in time for the Beijing Olympics. They resent the way their village has been left to crumble all this time.
The plan was first hatched in 1958. The government then stopped any local spending on irrigation, roads and services once it knew that Machuan was to be demolished. The villagers are angry that this year's rapeseed and wheat crops yellowed because of the drought, in spite of having the dam nearby.They are furious too at the scale of corruption the project has allowed and the way they were forced into signing agreements to move.They say the personal sacrifices they must make for this are simply too heavy. Zhao Fengmian in nearby Shizigang village said: "I've waited forty years because of this dam for life to get a better...... what about our needs?"
Zhao Xuehao, a 27 year old farmer in Shizigang complained that it was impossible to think about getting married since they don't know what land they have in the future. And the women aren't sure whether the men can offer them a stable future. Both villages are due to disgorge their residents soon after June this year. Yet all that the local dam resttlement officer, Liang Zhanpel, can say is: "the interests of the individual will yield to the collective interests". But he too is under pressure. He could easily lose his livelihood if he does get this disruption settled according to the plan.
These escalating rural protests, coupled with the unrest in the cities as millions begin to lose their jobs, are deeply worrying for China's Communist Party.
Yet the plans are agreed: China has to keep moving forward if it is to feed the mouths of its escalating population. Rachel Nixon, in her recent NowPublic piece on the Chinese earthquakes, points out that there is evidence that this kind of dam building exacerbates the potential for earthquakes: an awful prospect.
And the journalist Ma Jun, mentioned earlier, argues that the Water Transfer Scheme is a huge waste of resources. It would be easier, he says, to shift the focus of Chinese food production from the northern plains to the south, where the water is plentiful. It does nothing to encourage Chinese farmers to be more careful in the ways they use water. Sadly, too, other countries are using China as a template for other massive schemes. Politicians in Dehli are planning a River Intelinking Project, an even more complex scheme than this Chinese one, that aims to harness the monsoon rivers of the north like the Ganges and the Brashmaputra, to send the water south.
When will it ever end?