Huang is one of millions of Chinese eco-refugees who have been resettled because their home environments degraded to the point where they were no longer fit for human habitation. The government says more than 150 million people will have to be moved. Water shortages exacerbated by over-irrigation and climate change are the main cause.
The problem is most severe in the north-west, where desert sands are swallowing up farmland, homes and towns. Huang lives in Mingqin, a shrinking oasis area that government advisers privately describe as an “ecological disaster area”.
The Yellow river is diverted more than 62 miles (100km) to replenish dried-up reservoirs and aquifers in Minqin, where the population has swollen from 860,000 to 2.3 million over the last 60 years, even as water supplies have declined.
It is not enough. The Tengger desert is encroaching from the south-east and the Badain Jaran desert from the north-west. Since 1950 the oasis has shrunk by 111 square miles (288 sq km), while the number of annual superdust storms has increased more than fourfold. In Liangzhou district, 240 of the 291 springs have dried up.
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The Guardian was the first foreign news organisation to enter the pits and tunnels at Jiaozuo in Henan province, which are at the centre of China’s latest, greatest engineering project, the South-North Water Diversion Scheme. In the spirit of President Hu Jintao’s drive for “scientific development”, the aim is to engineer a solution to the most pressing environmental problem – the alarming depletion of water resources in the arid, heavily populated north.
More than twice as expensive as the Three Gorges Dam and three times longer than the railway to Tibet, the 50-year, $62bn (£40.67bn) project aims to channel a greater volume than the Thames along three channels – each more than 600 miles long – from the moist Yangtze basin up to the dry lands above the Yellow river.
[…] The project has sparked so many ecological, financial and political concerns that government advisers are calling for the plan to be delayed and, possibly, curtailed, raising the possibility that this could prove a mega-project too far even for China. First proposed in 1962, the scheme was approved by Mao Zedong, who said it was fine for the south to “lend a little water”, but until recently the government has not had the money or technical ability to go ahead.
Read more from the Guardian’s China at the Crossroads series.