ALEX CHADWICK, host:
A report from China's Health Ministry finds that more than 40 percent of the drinking water in rural China is contaminated by industrial pollution. Officials say that's what causes large outbreaks of diarrhea and other diseases, and it's also one reason for massive migration out of the countryside to Chinese industrial centers.
BRAND: Those left behind in rural China include many children and old people. And in one isolated ethnic minority area of southwest China even the children are leaving to find work. Jamila Trindle reports.
Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken) (Singing)
JAMILA TRINDLE: Jida Anyu(ph) is singing with her classmates in an unheated classroom in this remote village. Until two months ago, she had never been to school though she's already 13 years old. To look at her you might mistake her for a nine-year-old. She's that malnourished. Lack of schooling, malnutrition - these are symptoms of the extreme poverty that have already shaped Jida Anyu's life. When asked about her future, whether she'd like to stay in her village or migrate to the city, she has a ready answer.
Ms. JIDA ANYU: (Foreign language spoken)
TRINDLE: Migrate out, she says. And when asked why…
Ms. ANYU: (Foreign language spoken)
TRINDLE: I don't know how to say it, she says. Jida Anyu lives in Liang Xiang(ph), a mountainous area in southwestern China. She belongs to an ethnic minority known as the Yi. Like rural people all over China, the Yi are leaving their villages and streaming into the cities to find work. The difference is that here they're leaving younger and younger.
(Soundbite of traffic)
TRINDLE: Jida Nunu(ph), no relation, is 15 and just got back from her first trip to the city. She shivers as she talks, but it's warmer outside in the frigid winter air than in her family's mud house. Nunu has adult concerns. She says she left home recently to try and make money because her family is so poor. But when she laughs she sounds like any teenager anywhere.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. JIDA NUNU: (Through translator) My parents wanted me to stay home, but I wanted to go out and have a look around.
TRINDLE: She says she didn't like the job she found, bussing tables at a restaurant in the city, so she came back after only a week. But a week was long enough for her mother to worry, a lot.
JIDA NUNU's MOTHER: (Through translator) I was worried and afraid she was going to meet trouble there. Some of them just get lost and some get disease outside.
TRINDLE: The disease from outside is HIV/AIDS. As NGO worker Guan Xing(ph) explains, the dangers of the city increase when young migrants can't find work, which is often the case because many of them can't speak Mandarin, the dominant language in China.
Ms. GUAN XING: They don't have enough capacity of making a better life in city so they may begin to do some illegal things, including drug use, or stealing, or commercial sex work. And then, when they come back to their hometown, they bring these problems to their communities. This makes HIV/AIDS and drug dealing problem more serious.
TRINDLE: And it's not just returning villagers carrying the problem back from the city. Heroin also flows into the Yi communities along this road from Burma. It's one route drug traffickers use on their way to China's major cities. IV drug use arrived along this road in the 90's, then came AIDS, which spread rapidly through these remote mountains until the region had one of the worst AIDS problems in the country. And when adults can't work because of disease and drugs, children have few options, says Erja Nunu(ph), a teenager who runs the town's youth center.
Ms. ERJA NUNU: (Through translator) Many people are drug users. For some very young people, their parents are also drug users so they have to go out and work for their living.
TRINDLE: the infestation of drugs in her town are what 24-year-old Jeva Anu(ph) wanted to get away from when she left at 18 to work at a sewing factory in the province capital.
Ms. JEVA ANU: (Through translator) Many young people, they take drugs here and I didn't want to be influenced by them. And I also wanted to make some money.
TRINDLE: But she returned home to find the problem she was running away from had invaded her own family: her brother got AIDS from IV drug use and has three young children. He disappeared a few months ago and she doesn't know where he is.
.Ms. ANU: (Through translator) Sometimes I am very worried about him and I can't sleep. I worry about whether he has enough food or not, whether he's sick or not. And look at the children, they're still very young.
TRINDLE: Public health expert Jiang Xianghua(ph) sys the government is getting to these places that have been left behind by China's economic boom, but not fast enough.
Mr. JIANG XIANGHUA: As the Chinese government has more resources, and more funding, more money, they will do the work in that rural area. I believe in that. Whether the country is (unintelligible) the speed, you know. (Unintelligible) you reach that. Because for many Yi people and for many rural people it's already too late.
TRINDLE: Child migrants, heroin, AIDS. These modern ills, says Professor Ho Yungao(ph), are destroying his culture.
Professor HO YUNGAO: (Through translator) Our society never had AIDS and drugs. Those were brought in from outside. So many orphans, so many families with problems. We have lots of families that have young people in jail. There are people doing drugs, selling drugs, kids stealing: our society didn't have this before.
TRINDLE: He says he hopes the new program in his hometown for girls who've dropped out of school will help address these problems before they infect another generation.
Prof. YUNGAO: (Foreign language spoken)
TRINDLE: The girls are taught basic survival skills for the city and then set up with a factory job when they reach the legal working age of 16. Guan Xiang(ph) from Mercy Corps is running the program.
Ms. GUAN XIANG (Mercy Corps, China): We want them to influence their community. If they're just working in any factory without any skill, when they come back to the community actually they earn some money but they don't learn anything. So it cannot change their life, cannot change this community.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken) (Singing)
TRINDLE: That goal, changing her life, is what drove Peta Algua(ph) to make the long journey to Beijing. She's 33 now and works at this restaurant, sending money home to support her family. She's OK with it even though it means she only gets to go back every year or two to see her son. She says people who migrate should be ready to face that kind of difficulty, to eat bitterness, a Chinese phrase for enduring hardship.
Ms. PETA ALGUA: (Through translator) If you can eat bitterness you can go anywhere; in any situation you can go on. If you can't take it, you shouldn't go on this road. That's just the way it is.
TRINDLE: Eating bitterness in the hopes that her son, now 10 years old and very far away, won't have to. For NPR News, I'm Jamila Trindle in Beijing.