Beijing Water

Before the crisis: When Beijing was rich with water

Probe International

July 16, 2010

In “Daxing County’s Water Gone Forever,” the eleventh in a series of oral histories produced by a team of investigative environmental historians and water experts in Beijing and led by China’s prize-winning journalist Dai Qing and Probe International, Li Zhenwe, a former engineer at the water bureau in the Beijing’s southern Daxing County talks about his childhood in one of the county villages where annual floods and a surfeit of water were once an integral part of village life.

Now, it’s all changed, he says.

In his youth, Mr. Li remembers that rain used to be so plentiful that villagers were scared of it because, “when it started, it never stopped.” To protect their mud houses from becoming sodden with rain and collapsing, villagers would press stalks of sorghum into the mud to direct the water away from the house.

The houses looked like they were “wearing a straw cape,” said Mr. Li, “but it worked” and the houses remained dry.

Villagers were also able to quickly retrieve water from wells that “weren’t deep and, during the rainy periods, we could touch the water just by reaching down with our arms into the wells.”

“In those days,” reminisced Mr. Li, “all the children, young and old, knew how to swim, and the older people could too, so there were no deaths by drowning.”

And when the late autumn rains arrived, the watermelons, for which the area was famous, began to float. To harvest them, villagers put them in shallow baskets and pushed them through the water.

At that time, the nearby Yongding River was high and often flooded the village. With the floods, came fish swimming upstream to fill every hollow and gully by the side of the road. The fish would still be there in the winter, so, “if you cut through the ice, put your hand in and felt around, there were still plenty of fish beneath.”

But, Mr. Li says, the last time the river ran high was 1956. And since then, the once mighty Yongding River and heavy annual rains have steadily receded—with the Yongding River now running dry and Daxing County receiving a fraction of the rainfall it did during his youth.

The changes began, Mr. Li says, with government water programs that started in 1958 under the disastrous Great Leap Forward. Then, Daxing County’s rivers were “straightened little by little” as the villagers were told to dig canals across the region in order to have all the villages in the county “linked up by boat.” But with the water receding, many sections were dry, so people began filling them in again.

“We had worked for nothing,” Mr. Li said. Though they weren’t paid for their efforts, they ate for free. “Socialism was like that,” he added.

Starting in the 1960s the villagers began planting paddy rice—which, previously, would not have been viable in the region, as the area was too wet. But by the 1970’s, the droughts became so common that, by 1978, the village completely depleted its available ground water resources, jeopardizing the rice crops.

At this point, says Mr. Li, the villagers “began using motorized pumped wells” to cultivate and irrigate rice. But after a few years, even the motorized wells weren’t able to provide enough water for the rice plants—forcing the villagers to switch to corn and wheat. Now, says Mr. Li, they must cover all their plants with “plastic sheeting to prevent evaporation and to help crops grow faster.”

Villagers had experimented with a number of irrigation methods, first using piped and sprinkler irrigation and eventually relying on the more water-efficient drip irrigation first introduced by the famous American husband and wife team, Joan Hinton and Sid Engst.

As an example of just how different things are now in Daxing country, Mr. Li says that in order to supply his village with enough water for farming, the local water supply plant has dug more than 20 wells, with an average depth of 300 meters.

“As I remember, it used to rain in all four seasons and there was an annual rainfall of 1000 millimetres,” he said. “Now there wouldn’t be more than a few hundred millimetres.”

From water wealth to water poverty, Mr. Li’s story provides a poignant, and rare, insight to an environmental history of the traditional villages in Beijing’s watershed.

Read “Daxing County’s Water Gone Forever”

Other Oral Histories:

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