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Wells Locked China*

Parched town locks wells, not homes

Friday, February 28, 2003 Posted: 10:43 AM EST (1543 GMT)

China's once plentiful Yellow River often runs dry.



TANSHAN VILLAGE, China (Reuters) -- Hei Wanxiang doesn't have a lock on his front door, but he has a lock on his well.

The underground storage tank holds the 55-year-old farmer's most precious possession: water.

Nestled among brown hills in central China's Ningxia region, Tanshan is one of the driest places in the country, apart from actual deserts.

"We didn't harvest any grain for seven or eight years running because of drought. Only last year did we finally have a harvest and get enough to eat," Hei said.

Tanshan's 1,700 people are among an estimated 680,000 in Ningxia affected by severe water shortage, a key hurdle that is keeping them from joining China's economic miracle.

Chinese on the East Coast have prospered in the economic boom ushered in by the country's reform and opening up two decades ago. But those in Tanshan and other parts of the water-starved West have been left behind.

Desperation is reflected in village names such as "Yelling for Water," "Salt Pool," and "One Bowl of Water." Others, such as "Water Flowing Down" and "Ocean Source," seem wildly optimistic.

People in Ningxia use 9,600 cubic feet of water per person per year, about a quarter of the "survival level" often used as an international standard, said Wang Yongping, exploration chief at the region's Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources.

"Lack of water is one of the major factors inhibiting our economic growth," Wang said.

Tanshan receives about 12 inches of rainfall a year, actually about 50 percent more than Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia about 150 miles north.

But that compares to 43 inches a year in Shanghai, on the wealthy East Coast near the mouth of the flood-prone Yangtze River.

Incomes are similarly far apart. Shanghai urbanites enjoy the highest disposable incomes in the country -- an average of 12,883 yuan ($1,555) a year. Ningxia city residents see only two-fifths that level, about 5,544 yuan a year.

Silty salvation

Yinchuan's salvation is the Yellow River, China's second-biggest waterway.

The river is a silty lifeline to the northern part of Ningxia, supplying most of the water needed to slake the thirst of the region's wheat fields and heavy industry.

But surging use combined with drought in the river's upper reaches have forced strict conservation policies.

Places like Ningxia have literally drained the Yellow River, leaving nothing for people downstream. In Shandong province on the East Coast, the once-mighty river often dries to a trickle by the time it reaches the Bohai sea.

When a battle erupted between the interests of Ningxia's subsistence farmers and industrialists from Shandong, one of China's biggest provincial economies, the outcome was predictable.

Beijing now caps how much of the river Ningxia can use, and this year has ordered a cut to 70 billion cubic feet from 106 billion last year and 141 billion in the past.

To compensate, local geologists and engineers are scouring the countryside around the city for underground reservoirs that can be pumped to irrigate farms.

One such well was drilled earlier this year just north of Yinchuan. A noisy diesel motor squats in a tent, powering a pump spitting yellow water into a dirt canal which shoots off towards a nearby farm.

Since 1996 such water projects have delivered drinking or irrigation water for more than 200,000 people, but about 680,000 of Ningxia's people are still hydrologically challenged.

Most are concentrated in the South, where a third of the region's 5.7 million people live. The South is also 80 percent Hui, a Muslim ethnic minority driven into the inhospitable hills by Chinese settlers hundreds of years ago.

Wells for Tanshan

Wells are being dug for places like Tanshan too, but work is slow and money is as scarce as a rainstorm.

It can cost 400,000 yuan ($48,500) to find and dig a well, about a tenth of the exploration bureau's annual budget, though the central government and army also run water exploration projects.

"There is not enough investment," Wang said. "There are some new technologies that we don't have access to because we don't have funding."

In Tanshan, even the drilling of a new well is unlikely to change some facts of life.

"We bathe every week or eight days. Sometimes every 10 days," says farmer Hei, holding up the plastic pitcher he and his seven family members use to scrub down.

Asked if he has ever bathed in a big tub filled with water, Hei and a crowd of onlookers burst into laughter, shaking their heads at the suggestion.

(Original Len: 5127 Condensed Len: 5389)

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