Journalist Sharron Lovell’s gallery of striking images portray the losing end of China’s massive water transfer scheme to alleviate some by taking from others.
By Sharron Lovell, published by Pulitzercenter.org on February 12, 2016
Like so many of Mao’s pronouncements, it sounded simple. “The South has a lot of water; the North lacks water. So if it can be done, borrowing a little water and bringing it up might do the trick.” And thus, in 1952, the spark was lit for what would blaze to life four decades later as China’s most ambitious engineering project—a scheme to bring some 45 billion cubic meters of water, mostly from the mighty Yangtze and its tributaries, up to the north China plain to Beijing and the parched farmland and factory towns around it. The central route of the project began carrying water from Hubei to Beijing in late 2014, and, like so many of Mao’s plans, it has left a swath of human devastation in its wake.
Most environmentalists see the South-to-North Water Transfer Project as a necessary, though not sufficient solution to the severe water shortages suffered in China’s capital and surrounding areas—a situation that owes much to weather and climate but which has been compounded by the over-damming of the region’s rivers (another of Mao’s enthusiasms) and the severe pollution of its already small supply. Without comparably ambitious plans for regulation and conservation, experts like Ma Jun have been saying for more than a decade, those 45 billion cubic meters are just a drop in the bucket. And the project has put its own stresses on the environment, even as it has alleviated others.
On the winning end are residents of Beijing’s ever-sprawling suburbs, hoping for reliable showers and clean water to cook with. On the short end of the stick are the people who live in the areas giving up their water, who, without choosing to have had to leave their homes, find new work, leave behind the comforts of community and family, and fathom how their lives fit into the grand and ambitious plans their leaders have devised to solve a nation’s problems.
Sharron Lovell is a visual journalist and educator. She is currently based in Beijing and possesses a misguided love of China’s lower tier cities. She is course leader for a Beijing-based, U.K.-accredited master’s program in multimedia journalism.
Lovell’s work has been published in National Geographic books, Newsweek, The Guardian, Buzzfeed, ChinaFile, Foreign Policy, PBS, Politiken, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Irish Times, Forbes, The Independent, Grazia, Le Monde, and The Financial Times.
For further background reading, see Probe International’s South-to-North Water Diversion Project files here
Cao Suizhou is used to moving. He’s been forcibly relocated three times for the country’s colossal water projects and each time he’s had to rebuild his life from scratch. In his first move, he says, residents were barely compensated and were shifted out of their homes and into wooden huts on higher ground. After saving for a few years, his family built their own home themselves. In 2009, Cao’s village was moved away from the reservoir to make way for the water diversion, his small business was torn down along with his home, and he was forced to forsake family life to maintain their livelihood. Image by Sharron Lovell. China, 2015.
During the course of the year that Sharron Lovell filmed him, fisherman Cao Suizhou’s hair turned from jet black to white, a sign of stress for a man who otherwise endures his worries in silence. When asked what he wants people to know about China’s radical remedy to its water crisis, he said, “Just to understand what we’ve gone though, we know we can’t fight it or change anything, but people in Beijing should know where their water is coming from.” Image by Tom Wang. China, 2015.
Cao Suizhou on the Danjiangkou reservoir at dusk. The starting point for the central channel that will funnel water northwards, is Danjiangkou Reservoir. Cao Suizhou grew up in a tiny village on the northeastern shore of the reservoir and its waters have provided his livelihood since he was a teenager. Image by Sharron Lovell. China, 2015.
During the first of many waves of construction for the Danjiangkou Dam, which forms the reservoir where Cao now fishes, around 100,000 people were forced to relocate, reportedly no housing or farmland was provided, and resettlement officials simply ordered residents to move and handed them over some cash in bags. China’s mega-hydropower projects persist today, and while the government has drastically improved resettlement policies in recent years, actual implementation remains wracked with corruption. Image by Sharron Lovell. China, 2015.
Zhang Junfeng, a Beijing-based water activist asserts that the water diversion will only provide enough to recharge Beijing’s groundwater overdraft. He says the approach is akin to “keeping a person alive through blood transfusions.” Image by Sharron Lovell. China, 2015.
Climate change, pollution, rising urbanisation, population and energy demands are all factors leading to north China’s water stress. Image by Tom Wang. China, 2015.
A dried up reservoir near Beijing. In the 1950s China had an estimated 50,000 rivers. By 2013, the number dropped to 27,000. Many of China’s reservoirs have dried up. Image by Tom Wang. China, 2015.
A polluted canal in Beijing city. Over half of the groundwater in northern China is too contaminated for bathing, let alone drinking. Image by Tom Wang. China, 2015.
Bathers and swimmers in front of the Danjiangkou dam. The Danjiangkou dam and reservoir construction started in the late 1950s and has forced several waves of mass relocations since. It was raised again in 2009 to supply the South to North Water Transfer Project. Image by Sharron Lovell. China, 2015.
Bathers and swimmers in front of the Danjiangkou dam. The disruption of multiple resettlements has long stagnated the region, which today remains among China’s most poverty-stricken. It’s not just migrants that sacrifice. Beijing doesn’t just need water, it needs clean water. And while much of China boomed in recent decades, swathes of the reservoir and its upstream area, home to some 17 million people, have lost crucial streams of investment in infrastructure and business—leaving behind a landscape of potholed roads, unmaintained schools, and closed factories and mines. “There is no long-term plan for economic development there, because they always knew the water-transfer project was coming,” says Zhang Kelou, an accountant in Henan’s provincial capital. Image by Sharron Lovell. China, 2015.
Abandoned homes in a village which emptied out before the dam was raised. Just two homes remain occupied here. Villagers left behind like the two families here have had land and infrastructure submerged. But their biggest complaint is of loneliness. Image by Sharron Lovell. China, 2015.
A woman in one of the two last remaining homes in a village emptied out before the dam was raised. Their old brick house was spared. And so, while most of the villagers were sent away to relocation sites, they were told to simply stay in what they now describe as a “ghost village.” Today they have less farmland, as their fields were partially submerged—and less company. “Everyone else is gone, and we are so lonely here.” Image by Sharron Lovell. China, 2015.
A man in one of the two last remaining homes in a village emptied out before the dam was raised. Image by Sharron Lovell. China, 2015.
Danjiangkou city, classified as a “national-level poverty-stricken county,” has sacrified and suffered for the water diversion. Many of its mainstay industries have been closed to ensure water quality, including a number of polluting factories and mines. Cage fish farming will also be officially prohibited by the end of 2015. Image by Sharron Lovell. China, 2015.
Once Xichuan was the seat of a powerful regional kingdom, the Chu, but today Xichuan is one of China’s poorest areas, and there’s nothing grandiose about the dilapidated downtown of abandoned factories. Xichuan Mayor Mr Pei says that 238 factories in and near Xichuan were shut down. Following directives from the central government, hundreds of local mines were also closed to prevent pollution from leeching into water bound for Beijing. Meanwhile, to prevent agricultural runoff, farmers in the catchment area are banned from spraying chemical fertilizers or pesticides (though the level of enforcement remains unclear). While the natural environment has noticeably improved, says Pei, new job opportunities have not replaced those lost from the shuttered brick factories and paper mills. He estimates the direct economic cost to Xichuan to be 800 million RMB annually, a hefty price for a small city. Image by Sharron Lovell. China, 2015.
Liu Shouding, 67, was forced to relocate to Renguo near Nanyang. He says he’s lost his small cotton mill business and has to make do on handouts from the government and his children. He says he’s tired of sitting around idle. He also complains about corruption: “At the end of February, the Henan provincial party secretary Guo Gengmao came here for a visit, but they (local government) just found some smooth talkers to meet with him, who told him how good the new life was, then sent him away. He didn’t actually come to the village to talk to the immigrants, so this is the kind of research we get. Only talk good things, don’t talk bad things.” Image by Sharron Lovell. China, 2015.
The new migrant village of Caowan. While Cao Suizhou’s wife and grandchildren relocated to the new village, Cao returned to the reservoir and moved onto his small blue boat. Every time I visited, he’d be in a different spot on the reservoir based on what was good for the fish. Sometimes there were a few other boats around, and other times he was completely isolated. In the quiet fishing season, when Cao net-fishes in the early morning and just needs to check on his fish cages once or twice each day, the boredom and loneliness are palpable. He misses his wife and grandchildren terribly, he told me, but also the buzz of the village—having lunch followed by a tipple with a friend in the afternoon. Image by Sharron Lovell. China, 2015.