China’s upset farmers make water a priority

JINAN, China – Eight years of crippling drought had left Wang Bo’s wheat crop withering on the stalk.

Fish ponds in his village had shrivelled. Wells had run dry.

So when village leaders demanded Wang and other farmers pay for a drought relief fund they could not afford, all 300 villagers banded together to present a petition to the Shandong provincial government in Jinan, an hour away.

Now Wang doesn’t go back to his home town in the drought-struck plains of northeastern China much any more. He fears being picked up by the police for his involvement in the protest.

“The public security people got wind of what we were doing, rounded up the ringleaders and stopped us from going,” said Wang.

“It’s the peasants who always suffer in China.”

Drought has left agriculture in most of Shandong teetering on the brink of disaster, forcing farmers to the cities to find work. Wang joined the army, as many people do in Shandong, and went to Beijing before returning to Jinan.

The central government, aware that discontent among farmers like Wang would be a powerful destabilizing force, has made alleviating the water shortage in the north a top priority.

A century ago, drought in Shandong helped stoke the flames of the Boxer Rebellion in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed across the north between 1899 and 1900. The Qing Dynasty collapsed 11 years later.

China plans to spend an estimated $59 billion US on a massive project to channel water from the flood-prone south to the parched north.

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With delegates from Shandong and other thirsty northern provinces in Beijing for the annual National People’s Congress, leaders could face a deluge of rural complaints.

Premier Zhu Rongji issued a blunt warning that unrest among farmers and unemployed workers could derail China’s economic progress.

Unlike arid regions to the west, such as Ningxia, Gansu and Xinjiang, Shandong is not supposed to be dry. Jinan is known as the City of Springs, although many of its 72 springs have run dry.

More than 70 percent of Shandong, one of China’s main grain producers, suffers from drought, official figures show.

Grain output in the province fell an annual 11.5 percent to 32.92 million tonnes in 2002, Xinhua news agency reported, even as the overall Chinese output grew one percent.

Outside Jinan, the once mighty Yellow River, which flows to the sea on the Shandong coast, is a trickle.

At the pontoon bridge close to Jinan’s antiquated airport, the river narrows and becomes so shallow, locals say, that one can wade across. The fierce winter wind blows sand across the riverbed, as through a desert.

Farmers say there is little groundwater left to make up the shortfall, as it has almost all been exhausted for agricultural and industrial use.

China’s South-North project will build three channels to carry 45 billion cubic metres of water a year from major rivers in the south, including the Yangtze, about 1,300 kilometres to the thirsty north.

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The diverted water will help about 300 million people in nine provinces, state media say, and be able to supply water to almost 80 percent of Shandong. But it won’t be complete until 2030 at the earliest.

Which perhaps explains why locals in Shandong have little knowledge about the scheme.

“We’ve heard of the water project, but are not sure how it’s going to affect us,” said Wang Chunming, a farmer in Xijia village near the banks of the Yellow River.

There is little sign in the countryside of a concerted campaign to get people to use water more efficiently, despite official directives from Beijing that saving water is as important as the South-North water project.

Slogans painted on walls in villages instruct “Don’t steal electricity,” “Don’t drink and drive” and “Uphold family planning laws.” There appear few if any similar demands to save water.

“I suppose they just haven’t got round to painting them yet,” Xijia’s Wang said.

But in Jinan, water meters have been installed in some buildings and residents fined for excessive use. Four million people in the province have little access to drinking water.

Wang Bo, who now drives a taxi in Jinan, said he felt the central government did care and was trying to help.

But many in these dusty suburbs blame local leaders for their problems and resent the drought relief fees, accusing village headmen of skimming off the funds for their own use.

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“We hate them,” said Wang Bo. “But what can we do about it?”