Chronic Water Shortages Hit Rural Chinese Hard One of China's most pressing problems is a shortage of water across its northern region. Water levels in the Yellow River are low and farmers face difficulties irrigating their fields. The shortages highlight the sharp divide between rural and urban China.
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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

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #3: (Speaking in foreign language)

All this week, we are following NPR's Rob Gifford along the Yellow River, which crisscrosses northern China for 3,500 miles. Today, he explores one of the most peculiar features of the river - the fact that there's not very much water in it. The Yellow River contains only 2 percent of China's water resources, and yet more than 10 percent of the population, some 140 million people, depend upon it.

We join Rob Gifford once again as he travels the Yellow River from source to delta.

ROB GIFFORD: One of my biggest surprises in setting off along the Yellow River is that you can't actually travel much on the river itself. Especially in the middle and lower reaches, the river is so shallow that it's almost completely unnavigable, and there are hardly any boats at all. So I end up traveling parallel to the river, by rail and road, through Muslim areas and encroaching desert up towards Inner Mongolia.

The new Chinese interstate freeways are astounding even here, part of the huge government project to develop the remoter regions in the west, knitting the country together and flooding the cities with migrants. Occasionally, the Yellow River can produce a wonderful surprise.

Well, we just pulled off the road because here, right on the bank of the Yellow River is a massive good, old-fashioned water wheel. Must be about 40 to 50 feet high. China is racing into the future in so many ways with its new technology, but I guess sometimes the old technology is best. There's a channel just down below me here that the water flows along, pushes the wheel around. Boxes attached to the wheel take the water up to the top, into a tank, along an irrigation channel and into the gasping fields of northern China. Brilliant.

But the gasping fields of northern China are going to need more than water wheels. If you go a short distance from the river, rural areas of northern China are developing a full-blown water emergency.

Seventy miles from the Yellow River, a 60-year-old farmer called Zhang Guangjing flips a switch.

(Soundbite of pump motor)

GIFFORD: A pump brings precious collected rainwater out in a nearby pond and onto his fields. He's one of the few in his village still to have water in his pond. Others nearby lie dry. This is Tiezhuquan, a small village east of the city of Yinquan in the shadow of the Great Wall. All the water problems of north China seem to come into sharp focus here. It's just far enough away from the Yellow River not to receive any of the irrigation that the river provides elsewhere.

I've sat down with Zhang and his neighbors in a walled courtyard in the village. The bright yellows of the recently harvest corncobs and the bright blue Chinese sky drown out, if only temporarily, the grays, browns and smudged greens of the flat, bleak, open countryside. The villagers have complaints about many things - about the bumpy, unpaved road to their village, about the cost of gasoline and fertilizer. But there is one main problem that everyone agrees on.

Mr. SHAO ZHONG: (Speaking in foreign language)

GIFFORD: We lack water, says 67-year-old villager Shao Zhong, who's lived here all his life. We've always lacked water, he says. And we lack money to help us do anything about it. Shao says an average household in the village uses about 3,000 gallons of water a year, less than one-tenth of the average American person.

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

Mr. ZHONG: (Speaking in foreign language).

GIFFORD: We're still depending on heaven to survive, said Shao.

Ms. LI GUIZHEN: (Speaking in foreign language).

GIFFORD: Another villager, a tall, thin woman called Li Guizhen adds that if it doesn't rain, we simply don't have any harvest. The whole tone of the conversation is about more than just water. It's about the rural-urban divide and the struggle to make ends meet in rural China. Several hundred million people may have become part of the new urban middle-class, but that just leaves about 800 million people in the countryside, many of whom have not been touched by the boom of the city.

Asked if they feel forgotten…

Ms. WANG FUXIAN: (Speaking in foreign language).

GIFFORD: …another villager, 44-year-old Wang Fuxian scoffs. Of course we do, she says, squinting into the sun.

Ms. FUXIAN: (Speaking in foreign language)

GIFFORD: It's a common response in the countryside, where lives and resources often seemed to be sacrificed for the sake of the urban areas.

Ms. GUIZHEN: (Speaking in foreign language)

GIFFORD: Li Guizhen says the wealth gap is still so noticeable.

Ms. GUIZHEN: (Speaking in foreign language)

GIFFORD: The city is still the city, she says. And the countryside?

Ms. GUIZHEN: (Speaking in foreign language)

GIFFORD: A voice trails off without finishing the sentence.

Bumping by jeep over the dusty plane as we head back to the river, the dilemma is apparent all around. The map bears witness, too, to the eternal water shortage here, with names like Shout for Water Village and Welcome Water Bridge, and so it goes on. Water level of the aquifer sinks lower. The roots of plants are then unable to reach the water, so the plants are dying and desertification soon follows.

A journey down the Yellow River feels a long way from the shiny optimism of Shanghai or Beijing. Here, hundreds of miles inland, the cost of progress is all too clear. And it's clear, too, that city people are living in a different world.

(Soundbite of people talking)

After long days in the grind of the Chinese countryside, a bump into a group of urban, middle-class couples on vacation beside the Yellow River at a place called Shapotou. It's a sort of desert Disneyland, where you could ride camels, slide down the sand dunes or try something even more hair-raising.

I'm standing high up on a sand dune, up above the Yellow River with a whole group of Chinese tourists. And we're all being strapped into harnesses for a rather novel way to cross the Yellow River. It's a zip line, a kind of cable stretched from the top of this sand dune on one bank right over to the other side, several hundred yards across. Here we go.

Oh, here we go. Whoa. Well, here we go. Well, you got a great view. You - we got a great view.

This is Rob Gifford, NPR News, above the Yellow River in northern China. Oh, whew.

SIEGEL: And Rob's journey continues tomorrow with a look at the symbolic importance of the Yellow River and the changing culture of China.

GIFFORD: I mean, China doesn't seem very communist anymore. Do you know what I mean?

Unidentified Woman: I think it is only political things, nothing with us. We keep only living in our way. That's enough. We don't think too much about the political things.

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