Tuesday, April 12, 2016

My Log 512 April 12 2016: At last, an answer emerges to my question of 38 years ago: what has happened to the Chinese watertables

I read today that a government study in China has revealed that 80 per cent of the
Rewi Alley about when I met him

Alley in his younger days

country’s groundwaters are too contaminated for human consumption. Although the study did not include the deeper wells that most large cities use, it is still true that most Chinese live in the countryside whose towns and villages depend on shallower wells for drinking water (and for other uses).
This really takes me back to 1978, when I was in China as part of a National Film Board crew making films, a programme set up by the two governments. The first film we made was about a rural commune, successfully growing two crops a year on land that we would regard as marginal. I was fascinated by their system of agriculture and of governance, and peppered them with questions for the six extremely productive weeks we were working with them.
 I realized these rural cadres were unused to fielding such questions from an outside busybody like me, but I honoured them in that, after some delay, they gave me the information I sought, eventually producing a guy in a singelet with a little notebook in which all of the figures for recent production, income and expenditure were entered, and which he laboriously read out to me. He was the commune’s accountant, it seems, this working man in a t-shirt.  
We were able to see with our own eyes most of the results these figures revealed, for the commune which was groaning under a heavy wheat crop when we arrived in May, by July as we were leaving had been replanted and reconfigured into a rice paddy. Similarly, we had seen with our own eyes how everything, every single thing that grew, was used and recycled into their system, nothing, absolutely nothing, wasted; among the figures they gave me was the amount of manure produced in their backyards by the pig owned by each peasant household, and sold to the commune or brigade farms. Chairman Mao in the 1950s had recommended in a speech that every peasant household should own a pig. And I figured out that the people of Wushing commune, collectively and individually,  were raising 6,000 pigs, and were producing  something like 100,000 tonnes a year of organic manure. This, along with the water pumped up by the wells, was the basis for the success of their agriculture. 
We travelled quite a bit around the country on this trip, enough to convince me that this commune, although one of the better ones, was by no means just a model farm of the sort they had used nationally for propaganda purposes, and around which they had erected all sorts of production figures that, not long after we left, were revealed to have been figments of the imagination of the managers. We were there to watch the grain grow, and we were there for its harvesting, in which 13,000 of the 15,000 people living in the commune’s four villages, including all the schoolchildren, were deeply involved (the aged and the ailing being exempt from the task). We filmed as they worked through the night to get the grain in, and we filmed as cart-load after cart-load left to carry it to markets in the nearby towns. It was this massive effort, most of it unsupported by grants from senior levels of government, that gave me my intense admiration for the Chinese people, and for the government that was striving to do a work on which everyone, after all, has a central interest, which is that the people of the world, including the poorest, must be fed. Is it any wonder I felt impelled to find out, if I could, exactly how they were doing all this?
I felt there was only one question I kept on asking them that they studiously avoided.
“You say that on these 3,000 acres in the commune, you have sunk 308 wells which are the basis for your agricultural success. If you are typical, across the North China plain [which was described at the time by a Western expert as ‘the greatest collection of agricultural communities on earth’], there must be many thousands of recently drilled wells. What effect is this having on the water table?” was my question.
The answer was always the same, repeated as if by rote: “That is the problem of the department concerned,” they said.  In other words, they didn’t know, and couldn’t find out, which was a pretty fair indication that no one knew. The nation, desperate to feed one quarter of the world’s population, and that one quarter among the very poorest people on earth, was boxing on, hoping the problem could be delayed.
As it happens on that visit to China I had a conversation with a man who had been a hero of mine ever since my childhood. This man, Rewi Alley, went to China in 1929, became a factory inspector in the internationally-dominated port of Shanghai, and had lived in China ever since. He was so appalled by what he saw of working conditions in the factory that he set up training schools, financed by foreign money from American, Australian and New Zealand  volunteers. The Japanese invasion in the 1930s eventually destroyed his schools, so he decided to retreat to the far corners of the country where he would build a school to train rural leaders that would make all its own materials. Over the years he became a legendary figure for us in New Zealand. And when the Communists took over China in 1949, he realized they were about to do on a national scale what he had been doing locally on a tiny individual scale.  The new government agreed his work could continue but without foreign monetary support.
Eventually, Alley’s school was incorporated into the national system, and he  became one of that handful of dedicated foreigners who lived on through all of China’s traumas to become a propagandist for the Communist regime. Not long before our visit he had turned 80, and the occasion was graced by a dinner at which all of the major leaders of the country were present.
During our travels I spotted him dining with some Chinese men on the other side of a restaurant. I made bold to approach him. He said he had been told some Canadians were wanting to talk to him, but he was he was sorry he was really too busy to comply. Half an hour later, however, he got up, came to our table, and chatted, and I joined him later for an interview in his hotel room.
He had no worries he said, about the Chinese being able to make things. They were a resourceful and clever people, and would have no trouble in producing goods. What worried him was how would they feed themselves? Every year, they had to overcome some terrible natural calamity, a massive flood, a drought, an earthquake. (Only a year or so before our visit there had been an earthquake which some foreign experts still believe killed 600,000 people, and even the government admits killed 250,000. In those years China was still doing everything alone, depending on its own resources, accepting no foreign help, and giving out little information about its disasters.) So whatever effort they made to catch up on the food deficit, said Alley, was reduced in effect as they strove to overcome these calamities.
Of course, he said, they have dug wells all over the country to sustain their crops: but his worry was, the water table. What were going to be the effects of the countless wells they had drilled in order to nurture the crops, now growing all over the country, for the first time in at least their recent centuries?
The very question I had been asking my contacts in the commune, and the answers to which are only now coming to the surface in the form of contaminated and sparse water resources, apparently increasingly  incapable of sustaining the immense pressure placed on them.
With China now almost the entire world’s factory, in fulfillment of Rewi Alley’s view of their mechanical abilities, the shortage of water is only one of the many immense problems facing this country, as it tries to fight a way into a successful future. No one should underestimate the immense efforts they have been making since at 1949. And now, perhaps more than ever before, we all have a stake in their success. 

No comments:

Post a Comment