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Small Town in China Faces Bleak Times as Water Shortage Worsens

  • Celia Hatton

Everyday, small communities in much of China struggle to get the water they need for their homes and their farms. The country is confronting a water shortage that experts say will only get worse as the population grows. Celia Hatton visited the town of Yuwang in China's arid heartland and reports on the cost, in economic and human terms, of the water problem.

The Muslim call to prayer sounds just after five in the morning in the dusty town of Yuwang. This farming community, in central China's Ningxia region, is dominated by several mosques, even though it is home to just 6,000 people.

Once morning prayers are done, attention turns to the town's second-most important activity: lining up at the local water pumping station.

By 7:30 a.m., the pump is a hub of activity. Truck drivers are waiting patiently along the dirt road for a chance to fill up their tanks with water they will ferry around Yuwang and to rural areas.

For 20 years, Yuwang's water has been piped in from a mountain spring about 80 kilometers away, but that arrangement will not last much longer.

The pump station manager says he cannot supply water every day. Today, there will be nothing left by 10 or 11 o'clock.

There are so many stops in other communities on the pipe upstream before the water gets to Yuwang that he cannot meet the demand.

The water at the pumping station costs about 45 cents per cubic meter - slightly more than the water in China's capital, Beijing.

However, the additional delivery fee adds greatly to the cost for rural residents. A truck full of water costs approximately S2.5 at the pump in Yuwang, but by the time the water has reached its destination in the countryside, its price has skyrocketed - often to more than $8. That is a vast sum for impoverished rural communities, where many people live on less $1 a day.

One tank of water from there to this place costs 60 to 70 yuan ($7.40 cents to $8.60), complains this elderly man who lives an hour out town.

However, if he wants to stay in the village where he has lived his whole life, he has no choice but to pay the high prices.

He says the village only has bitter water in the ditches. Humans cannot drink that water, nor can cows, he says. Only donkeys can live on that water.

And without good water, crops cannot grow in this area. Without a way to make a living, people have left, and many homes in this village stand empty.

This woman says most of the people in the village have left to find work. They have taken their families to the towns where there is water. A lot of people in this village have fled due to hunger.

But water shortages are not an easy problem to escape in China. Four hundred cities across the country do not have enough water to support their escalating populations. The Beijing Worker's Daily newspaper reports China's capital is short one billion tons of water every year. Some cities have resorted to rationing, at least for part of the year.

Liang Congjie, the president and founder of Friends of Nature, one of China's first environmental groups, says water shortages have become one of the country's biggest challenges, because, he says, it is impossible to create new stores of clean water.

Mr. Liang says that if there is no water underground and no rain falling, there is no alternative but for the ground to be dry. Originally, places hit by drought were not suitable for human beings. But, he says, China has such a huge population so even places that are not suitable for human beings are now full of people.

The Chinese government is making some attempt to address the issue.

Apart from raising water prices in coastal cities and urging citizens to conserve, China is starting what could be the world's largest construction project: a complex network of canals that will carry water from the Yangtze river in southern China, where water supplies are greater, to parched areas in the north. The project is estimated to cost $60 billion and will take 60 years to complete.

Expensive construction projects seem a world away at the weekly market in Yuwang. Many of the people crouched here by the road selling food wear facemasks to protect themselves from the swirling dust.

One solution to the water problem here is for another pipeline and pump to be built to bring water from the mountains. However, only the provincial government can afford that project, and while there is talk of a new pump, so far there are no definite plans for one.

Experts predict that China's water shortage will peak when the population rises to an estimated 1.6 billion in the year 2030. But by then, it is unclear how many people will be left to answer Yuwang's daily call to prayer.

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