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Why didn’t the gov’t build this village a road?

Over the past few days, I’ve mentioned the village on the cliff several times, but haven’t yet discussed one of the biggest questions I had on my mind during my time there, Why didn’t the gov’t build this village a road? Why is it being left to charities to do the gov’t’s work?

I should say that we aren’t just talking about a single road, the majority of the projects we visited were infrastructure projects. One involved repairing an irrigation system, another was to fix a broken water pump, and the third was to build a water pump. Throughout China this charity is also involved in rebuilding schools, roads, bridges and village clinics.

This ties back into an important argument made by economists who say despite the hundreds of billions of dollars the Chinese gov’t has poured into infrastructure over the last few decades, China’s infrastructure investment is still far behind the US and other developed countries. This, they argue, means that China’s investing is still producing excellent returns, and is far from the waste of resources that more pessimistic economists allege.

Perhaps this is why I was so frustrated by what I saw in the countryside. Yes, there is still clearly a need, and yes, China is still funding infrastructure with billions of dollars, but a tiny percentage of that is reaching those who live in poverty. These optimistic economists fail to ask whether or not these resources are being used to fulfill actual needs, or if they are being wasted on vanity projects (like turning bridges into tunnels).

The Chinese aid worker I talked with about this issue tried valiantly to come up with a politically safe answer to my question, “Why didn’t the gov’t build this village road?” Finally she said, “They didn’t build it because it wouldn’t help local GDP very much. They are only interested in projects that build their resume and reputation.” The ugly fact is that instead of building a road that would have allowed these 40 families access to the city and its markets, which did make a huge difference for them, the local gov’t decided instead to invest in a new old looking town that might someday attract tourists.

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The same was true of the other projects that had been ignored by local officials. In the most remote village we visited the charity had built a water pumping station. I had heard about how villagers prior to the pump had been forced to walk several kilometers and cross over a mountain to the next valley for fresh water, and how much better off they were now thanks to our efforts. So you can imagine my surprise when the village was next to a rather large stream.

“Why don’t they just use this water?” I asked, “Why were they going so far away?” The first response was, “They have always done it this way.” The second response was, “During the 60’s a mine was built upstream, it released a lot of contaminates into the water which caused many diseases.”

So even here, in one of the most isolated villages I had ever been to, reckless gov’t projects had created a need that had never existed before AND then refused to address the problem (a similar theme appeared today in People’s Daily). It should be noted that gov’t officials took us to see the pump in new cars, and then asked the charity to help pay for the needed repairs.

As you can probably tell reading this, I am more than a little frustrated by this issue. China’s gov’t has footed the bill for Olympic stadiums, high-speed railways, airports, space shuttles, and who knows how many official cars and banquets, but somehow still fails to provide the basics. While many have been impressed by China’s political system when visiting Shanghai and Beijing, one would have the exact opposite impression if they visited these villages.

Bringing water to the thirsty north – China’s South-North Water Transfer Project

As we saw yesterday, China’s water problem urgently needs solutions. As is often the case in China, the Party has pushed forward a single massive project as their favorite option. This project is known as the “South-North Water Diversion Project,” and was inspired by a quote from none other than Chairman Mao who stated, “Southern water is plentiful, northern water scarce. If at all possible, borrowing some water would be good.” Mao may have gotten the idea from the Soviet Union, which was also working on a similar project at the time (that project was abandoned in the 80’s due to environmental concerns). The project began in 2002, and some sections are already in use.

The plan seems straight forward enough, pump water from the Yangtze River to the Yellow River (and other northern rivers) at three separate stretches. In theory this will allow China to take advantage of water that would otherwise flow into the ocean.

At the moment, droughts in the north contribute to considerable economic losses not only for farmers, but for factories and mining operations. Additionally, major cities like Beijing and Tianjin are facing water shortages that effect millions of urbanites.

There are of course some major concerns about such a large scale project.

For environmentalists, the problems are clear, diverting the flow of water from the Yangtze could further endanger the already disrupted ecosystem. The three-gorges dam accelerated the extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin, and has critically endangered the Yangtze River finless porpoise. Also, with a lower flow of water, the river would have it’s self-cleansing capabilities further reduced. This would mean an even more polluted river system; bare in mind that “cancer villages” already exist along the banks of its tributaries.

For southern farmers and factory owners, it means an increased risk of drought. Even though Mao declared southern water to be plentiful, it did little to change the actual situation. Additionally, Chinese scientists claim that 94% of the rivers’ waters pour out in to the ocean, but during the north’s driest months, the Yangtze region also faces drought. Using a Google news search, I found that there were “severe” droughts in the area in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2011. The least serious of these effected nearly 4.5 million people. Even in typical years, the Yangtze region faces seasonal power shortages. In drought years, the project would have to drastically reduce its diversion, and would sit largely idle during the key period of the year (wasting ~$60 billion worth of infrastructure).

In order to minimize the effects of water shortages in the Yangtze River, some have suggested diverting water from the Brahmaputra and Mekong rivers (which start in China but flow through other countries before reaching the sea). China has confirmed that it has already started building dams along the Brahmaputra in Tibet, which has become a major source of contention between it and India (who already have strained relations). While this is not officially part of the South-North Water Diversion Project, it is seen as a possible first step.

The massive project ignores the possibility of more practical solutions, which would include raising the price of water, increasing enforcement of existing water use limits, and moving towards efficient use. As Ken Pomeranz stated in an interview on The China Beat on the topic (worth reading in full),

 “Probably most of the water savings that you could achieve without greatly reducing economic output are in agriculture, where a lot of irrigation is very inefficient (and not just in China); in fact, I think there’s a good case to be made that if you put anything like the cost of the South-North water diversion project into fixing a million leaky faucets, lining a million unlined irrigation ditches, enforcing existing wastewater treatment standards (allowing more water to be re-used), etc., etc., you could do more to alleviate the problem (and more safely) than the diversion project will do.”

For more on China’s water problems I reccomend Jonathan Watts’ excellent book “When a Billion Chinese Jump,” and this photo essay from Foreign Policy.