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Imagine taking the entire population of Cincinnati and moving each person to a new place. That's effectively what's happening in China. Three hundred and thirty thousand people are being relocated as part of the largest engineering project in the country's history. It's a project 60 years in the making that will channel water from the south of China to the drought-prone north.

NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Hubei.

LOUISA LIM: I'm now at the Danjiangkou Dam and it's from this reservoir that the water is going to be transported to the thirsty north of the country. They've already raised the height of the dam here in order to allow for more water to be stored in the reservoir. And, of course, the water levels will rise, and that's why areas around here will be flooded.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER)

LIM: And so, 330,000 people will lose their homes. In a village called Guangmenyan, residents squelch down muddy paths in the pouring rain. They're carefully carrying the meager accumulation of rural lives: doors, tattered double-happiness posters celebrating weddings, even the roofs of their old homes. Three hundred and fifty-three people are leaving the village forever tomorrow.

So I've just been talking to Zhang Sihua, who's the farmer who'll be leaving the house which he's lived in for 55 years. He's wearing plastic sacking over his back to keep the rain off and a straw hat. And he's busy tying up these piles of bamboo, which he is taking with him to his new house. He says he'll be really sad to leave this place.

ZHANG SIHUA: (Through translator) I will miss these mountains and the water and everything else. Of course I don't want to leave, but I'm sacrificing my own family for the sake of the bigger family, our country.

LIM: So today, it's the Chinese equivalent of All Souls Day, and this is the last day that the villagers here will be able to give offerings at the graves of their ancestors. So everybody is coming out, although it's raining. They're coming out with yellow papers to burn at the graves to show their respects to those who passed away.

CHEN GUANGCHUN: (Chinese spoken)

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

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

GUANGCHUN: (Through translator) We can't raise animals there. The houses are too close together. Here, food is cheap; 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.

LIM: Possessions are being loaded 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.

For those staying, the compensation package hasn't yet been announced. Those leaving now will be given 24 squares meter's worth of housing each. They need to make up the difference themselves. 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.

FENG GONGWEN: (Through translator) 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. We're even giving about $150 of compensation for each family grave.

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

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

JIANG ZHONGGEN: (Chinese spoken)

LIM: I paid $12,000 to buy this house, he says, and fixing the floor will cost a lot more.

Unidentified Man: (Chinese spoken)

LIM: While we're talking, a local official, who won't give his name, strides in, shouting at us. At first, he refuses to allow us to leave. It's a sign of the sensitivity of the project.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING)

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

YUN JIANLI: (Through translator) 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. It's disastrous for any river to be reduced by 20 percent a year.

LIM: Scientists, too, have expressed concerns. Liu Changming is from the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences, and he's a government advisor on this particular project. He says it is necessary, but it does carry risks.

LIU CHANGMING: (Through translator) This project carries water from south to north, while China's rivers flow from west to east. The intersections are very risky. In extreme weather, mudflow or debris flow or flash floods could occur. We must take preventive actions.

LIM: However, economic development is at stake. So this day is the start of a new life for these villagers from Guangmenyan. They're moving about 300 miles - six hours by bus - down the winding mountain roads to the flat plains of Zaoyang Township.

So now, we've just pulled into the new village, which is called Shumiao Village. There are rows of two-story white houses with balconies. There are a lot of officials here. I can see the local TV station filming.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIREWORKS)

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

SIHUA: (Through translator) I'm quite happy. The houses are okay 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'll get used to it.

LIM: 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 was in 1968 when the reservoir submerged his house for the first time.

WEI FU: (Through translator) Then when we moved, we used a wheelbarrow to move our possessions, and our houses hadn't yet been built. It was quite hard, and it was dirty.

Unidentified Woman: (Chinese spoken)

LIM: Do you feel unlucky to have been resettled twice, I ask. He hesitates, and a government official leaps in. No, he's not unlucky, he says quickly. To make such a contribution to your country 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.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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