A Village Sacrificed For China's Greater Good

Villagers from Guangmenyan move roof beams and bamboo poles to take with them to their new homes.

Villagers from Guangmenyan move roof beams and bamboo poles to take with them to their new homes. As part of the largest engineering project in China's history, 353 villagers are leaving their homes forever. The $62 billion water diversion project will channel water from the south of the country to the drought-prone North. Lei Yang/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Lei Yang/NPR

Imagine taking the entire population of Cincinnati and moving everyone to new houses elsewhere. That's effectively what's happening in China. In what's being called the largest engineering project in the country's history, 330,000 people are being relocated.

It's a $62-billion water diversion project 60 years in the making, channeling water from the south of the country to the drought-prone north. The massive project channels water using three separate artificial waterways — Eastern, Central and Western — and was first suggested by Mao Tse-Tung in 1952.

The Danjiangkou section is the much-delayed Central line. Construction on it began in 2003 and was originally scheduled to be finished by the 2008 Olympics. The current expected date of completion is 2014. The Eastern leg is partially finished, though the beneficiary, the city Tianjin, has rejected the new water supply as being too polluted. The Western waterway is on hold, perhaps indefinitely.

For the Central section, water from the massive Danjiangkou Dam will be transported north. The height of the dam has already been raised to allow for more water to be stored in the reservoir. Of course, the water levels will rise, which is why areas around here will be flooded and 330,000 people will lose their homes.

In a village called Guangmenyan, residents squelch down muddy paths in the pouring rain. They are carefully carrying the meager accumulation of rural lives: doors, tattered double-happiness posters celebrating weddings, even the roofs of their old homes; 353 people are leaving the village forever.

Sacrificing For A 'Bigger Family'

Farmer Zhang Sihua will be leaving the house he has lived in for 55 years. Wearing a straw hat and plastic sacking to keep the rain off, he is busy tying up piles of bamboo to take to his new house. He says he'll be sad to leave this place.

Chen Guangchun pays his respects at his father's tomb for the last time.

Chen Guangchun pays his respects at his father's tomb for the last time. The government is giving these villagers about $150 compensation for each family grave they leave behind. Lei Yang/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Lei Yang/NPR

"I will miss these mountains and the water and everything here," he says. "Of course I don't want to leave. But I'm sacrificing my own family for the sake of the bigger family, our country."

On the Chinese equivalent of All Souls Day, the last day villagers will be able to give offerings at the graves of their ancestors, everyone is coming out despite the rain with yellow papers to burn at the graves to show their respects to those who have died.

It'll be too far to come back next year, says Chen Guangchun, as he kneels in front of his father's grave.

He lights firecrackers to ward off the evil spirits. Now he's ready to go. He has dismantled his house, killed his pigs and is steeling himself to abandon the family dog.

"We can't raise animals there," he says. "The houses are too close together. Here, food is cheap, as we grow our own.

"I'll miss my orange orchards here. The amount of compensation I get for them is equal to one year of income from my orange trees."

Villagers load possessions into trucks. This time is different from in the past; the villagers do actually have a choice: Half of them have chosen to be relocated close by, while others have agreed to move farther away.

Compensation

According to official figures, the government is budgeting about $11,000 per head for resettlement costs.

Feng Gongwen from the Danjiangkou resettlement office says each family's compensation package differs.

"There are lots of factors to consider in calculating the compensation, like the type of house, the number of orange trees, the paddy fields, the wells and the biomass pools," Feng says. "We're even giving about $150 of compensation for each family grave."

The relocations started months ago, and while some say they are happy, there have been some problems. In some places, land was seized from the existing residents to give to incoming ones, causing tensions between the communities.

There are construction problems in one village, Longwangzhen, where rain spatters like gunshots on the brand-new corrugated iron roofs. Farmers resettled here in March say these roofs leak and construction is shoddy.  Jiang Zhonggen shows what's left of his concrete floor. It was uneven and he feared it was structurally unsound, so he has torn it up and is starting over.

He says he paid $12,000 to buy the house, but fixing the floor will cost much more.

While he's talking, a local official -– who won't give his name -– strides in, shouting. At first he refuses to allow us to leave, a sign of the sensitivity of the project.

Impact On The Environment

There are questions, too, about the environmental consequences.

Yun Jianli is the founder of an environmental group that focuses on cleaning up the Han River, which flows from the Danjiangkou reservoir. She stresses she doesn't oppose the project, but she's worried about the consequences.

"For the first stage, they'll take 9.5 billion cubic meters. That's equivalent to 26.9 percent of the flow of the Han River in a normal year," she says. "It's disastrous for any river to be reduced by 20 percent a year."

An official report has warned the project could endanger one-third of the fish species in the Danjiangkou Dam as well as harming the river's self-cleaning capabilities and causing farm irrigation canals to dry up.

Scientists, too, have expressed concerns. Liu Changming, a government adviser on the project from the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences, says it is necessary, but it does carry risks.

"This project carries water from south to north, while China's rivers flow from west to east," he says. "The intersections are very risky. In extreme weather, mudflow or debris flow or flash floods could occur. We must take preventive actions."

"I'm quite happy," says Zhang Sihua about his new house. "We will get used to it."

"I'm quite happy," says farmer Zhang Sihua about his new house. "We will get used to it." He left his home in Guangmenyan where he had lived for 55 years. Lei Yang/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Lei Yang/NPR

Economic development is at stake, however, so this day is the start of a new life for these villagers from Guangmenyan. They are moving about 300 miles — six hours by bus — down the winding mountain roads to the flat plains of Zaoyang township.

A New Life

The new village, Shumiao, has rows of two-story white houses with balconies.  There are lots of officials here, and the local TV station is filming.

Amid a blaze of fireworks, the migrants are shown to their new houses. Zhang Sihua, who was so sad the day before, is more cheerful in front of local officials.

"I'm quite happy," he says. "The houses are OK for farmers like us. We're waiting for the government to give out land, and we're not sure what we'll grow, but we will get used to it."

Toasts are made, and the newcomers tuck into a banquet. For some, this process brings back memories. This is the second time 66-year-old Wei Fu'er has been resettled.  The first time was in 1968 when the reservoir submerged his house.

"Then when we moved we used a wheelbarrow to move our possessions," he says. "And our houses hadn't yet been built. It was quite hard, and it was dirty."

When asked if he feels unlucky to have been resettled twice, he hesitates. A government official leaps in, quickly saying Wei isn't lucky. To make such a contribution to your country, the official says, is glorious.

"Yes I'm glorious," Wei agrees, laughing nervously.

As his experience shows, keeping China's glorious development on track is exacting huge sacrifices from some of its people.

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