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August 18, 2011

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Water project means new homes

SEVERAL hundred thousand people are being relocated in the vast South-North Water Diversion Project. Yao Yuan and Li Peng visit villagers moving into their modern new homes.

Before leaving his home village in central China's Henan Province, Ji Xinfang visits his grandparents' graves to bid a final farewell.

"Tomorrow I'm going to a faraway place, so I'll burn more money this time for your use in the other world," the 58-year-old murmurs while burning paper money in front of the graves.

Finishing the ritual, Ji takes a last look at his home village of Shangen. He had been told that before long, water levels would rise to 170 meters, flooding the entire village.

China has been working on its South-North Water Diversion Project since 2004. The project involves transporting water from the Yangtze River to China's drought-prone northern regions. As part of the project, the Danjiangkou Reservoir will be expanded, forcing the relocation of 345,000 people living nearby.

It is the nation's largest relocation program after that of the Three Gorges Hydroelectric Project, which involved the relocation of 1.27 million people.

Ji, along with 741 villagers, is among the 162,000 residents Henan has pledged to relocate before the end of August. The villagers will be relocated to a newly built community in Guodian Township, just an hour's drive from the province's capital of Zhengzhou.

"I feel devoted to this land, but the project is in the national interests. Besides, my children working in the city have also encouraged me to move out of the mountains," says Ji.

Last Thursday, the village of Shangen resounded with a salvo of explosions as villagers paid tribute to their deceased ancestors and lit firecrackers to dispel evil spirits from their tombs.


Trucks have been sent by the local government to transport the villagers' belongings.

"We hate to part with our old furniture, which has been with us for so many years," says Ji Jinding, who filled his truck with dilapidated wooden benches and tables.

"Besides, moving to a new house is quite an expenditure, and we need to scrimp on everything," he says.

A group of villagers discussed how to hoist a heavy millstone onto one of the trucks. The "buster," they said, was perhaps the oldest object in the village and should be kept as a reminder for their offspring in their new home.

Last Friday, a fleet of 17 coaches, accompanied by ambulances and fire engines, arrived at the village. Led by a police van that helped clear the road ahead, the villagers embarked on an eight-hour journey with mixed feelings.

"I heard life there (in Guodian Township) is more modern and convenient, but we've gotten so used to the old village life that it's sad to say goodbye," says resident Wang Xiufen.

Wang placed a portrait of a Bodhisattva on her seat. "I hope it will protect us in our new home," she says. Near her, an old woman holds a photo of her deceased husband, sitting silently throughout the whole journey.

Upon arriving at his new home, Ji Chuncheng cannot wait to set off a string of firecrackers in celebration.

"The house is much larger than my old one, although it's a bit empty at the moment," says Ji while inspecting the two-story apartment allocated to his family.

Each member of his family of six now has a private bedroom.

The house's two bathrooms, equipped with flush toilets and showers, are cleaner than the shabby rural latrines they used in Shangen.

However, the windfalls of modernity also mean higher living costs.

Ji's family is used to cooking with firewood collected from nearby mountains and fields. Now they must pay for cooking gas.

"We recommend gas, since it's easier and more environmentally friendly than burning wood," says a community worker while showing Ji's wife how to operate the apartment's gas-fueled stove.

A village official visits daily to help families get accustomed to their new homes.

"The first two weeks is the key period to stabilize the new settlers. All problems must be solved with the utmost patience and enthusiasm," says Wang Jianmin, the official in charge of migration affairs for the Shangen villagers.

Wang says measures have been taken to keep the villagers from becoming homesick, since past relocation efforts have seen rural families scrambling to return to their home villages after shifted to unfamiliar locations.

The second step is to introduce settlers to local industries where they can be guaranteed a better income. "Only with a better livelihood can their hearts truly be settled," says Wang.

The township also provides training and job opportunities in its numerous food-processing companies and service industries.

According to the relocation policy, each farmer is allocated a patch of arable land.

Last year Guodian Township received a group of 895 resettled villagers and nearly half found employment in the town.

Ji says he and his wife will probably go back to farming while they search for good jobs for their three daughters.

"A new life has begun, whether we like it or no," says Ji. "So far, we've followed the government's guidance in moving us here, and now we hope they will not end their efforts to help us adapt to this new environment."


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