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Chronic Water Shortages Hit Rural Chinese Hard

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Chronic Water Shortages Hit Rural Chinese Hard

Chronic Water Shortages Hit Rural Chinese Hard

Chronic Water Shortages Hit Rural Chinese Hard

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/16971401/17181401" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Third in a five-part series.

An old-fashioned water wheel on the Yellow River at Qingcheng in Gansu province brings water to the corn and wheat fields alongside it. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Andrea Hsu, NPR

An old-fashioned water wheel on the Yellow River at Qingcheng in Gansu province brings water to the corn and wheat fields alongside it.

Andrea Hsu, NPR

Farmer Zhang Guangjing stands beside the pond he uses to collect rainwater in Tiezhuquan Village, Ningxia Hui autonomous region. He then uses a pump to irrigate his fields. He is lucky: The ponds of many of his neighbors long ago dried up. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Andrea Hsu, NPR

Farmer Zhang Guangjing stands beside the pond he uses to collect rainwater in Tiezhuquan Village, Ningxia Hui autonomous region. He then uses a pump to irrigate his fields. He is lucky: The ponds of many of his neighbors long ago dried up.

Andrea Hsu, NPR
Map
Alice Kreit, NPR
Map
Alice Kreit, NPR

Farmers in Tiezhuquan village say water shortages are their biggest problem. They rely on rainfall to water their crops. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Andrea Hsu, NPR

Farmers in Tiezhuquan village say water shortages are their biggest problem. They rely on rainfall to water their crops.

Andrea Hsu, NPR

At the Shapotou Desert Theme Park, middle-class urbanites fly across the Yellow River by zip line. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Andrea Hsu, NPR

At the Shapotou Desert Theme Park, middle-class urbanites fly across the Yellow River by zip line.

Andrea Hsu, NPR

If geography is destiny, then China's path was destined to be a difficult one.

A country the size of the United States, China has always struggled to tame its deserts, its mountains and its rivers, even as it has struggled to get food and water to its people.

A journey down the Yellow River reveals one of China's most pressing problems today — the shortage of water across northern China.

Surprisingly Shallow Waters

One of the biggest surprises in setting off along the Yellow River is that you can't actually travel along much of the river itself. In the middle and lower reaches in particular, the river is so shallow that it is almost completely unnavigable, and there are hardly any boats on it. The low water levels mean that while farming communities along the river can irrigate their fields with river water, supplies are limited.

Nonetheless, the Yellow River occasionally produces a delightful surprise. Traveling along the waterway toward Inner Mongolia, an old-fashioned water wheel appears. The huge wheel diverts the river's murky water into the fields of northern China.

But the gasping fields are going to need more than water wheels. The eternal water shortage here is evident in the names of area landmarks: Shout for Water Village and Welcome Water Bridge.

And a short distance inland from the river, rural areas of northern China such as Tiezhuquan Village in China's Ningxia Hui autonomous region are developing a full-blown water emergency.

Farmers Face Irrigation Woes

All of the water problems of northern China seem to come into sharp focus here, 70 miles from the Yellow River, and even closer to the desert. The bright yellows of the recently harvested corncobs and the bright blue Chinese sky contrast sharply with the grays, browns and smudged greens of the flat, bleak, open countryside.

Zhang Guangjing, a 60-year-old farmer, is one of the lucky ones here — he has a pond that holds rainwater and a pump that sends water from this pond into his fields. Others here have similar ponds, but the water has long dried up.

He and his neighbors have complaints about many things, including the bumpy, unpaved road to their village and the cost of gasoline and fertilizer. But there's one main problem that everyone agrees on.

"We have always lacked water," says 67-year-old villager Shao Zhong. "And we lack money to help us do anything about it."

The farmers say that, on average, their households consume about 3,000 gallons of water a year. That's less than one-tenth of the amount consumed by the average American.

For drinking water, they depend on cisterns that collect scarce rainwater and on wells. They now have to dig deeper and deeper into the ground to make wells, as the underground water is sucked dry. For their crops, they can do nothing but wait for rain.

Shortages Highlight Rural-Urban Divide

In places like Tiezhuquan, the rural-urban divide is all too clear. When asked if they feel left behind in the development boom of the cities, Wang Fuxian, 44, says, "Of course we do."

Another villager, Li Guizhen, says the gap in wealth is obvious.

"The city is the city," she says, "and the countryside, well...." She declines to finish her sentence.

Urbanites Live in Different World

A journey down the Yellow River feels a long way from the shiny optimism of Shanghai or Beijing. But here, hundreds of miles inland, the cost of progress is all too clear.

And a visit to the Shapotou desert theme park, built on a sand dune along the Yellow River, makes it all the more clear that city people are living in a different world. Here, middle-class urbanites ride camels, slide down sand dunes and fly across the Yellow River by zip line — a cable that transports brave passengers from a sand dune on one side of the river to a tower on the other.

While for rural people the river represents sustenance, at the theme park, it's simply another form of entertainment.

This story was produced for broadcast by NPR's Andrea Hsu.

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