They lost all their ancestral assets -- rice paddies, fish ponds and even houses, but their income nearly tripled in three years. More importantly, they have finally bidden permanent farewell to the ferocious floods that plagued them every summer.
While this season's floods on the Yangtze River, China's longest, kept raising the water level in Dongting Lake, the 580 farmers of Xipanshanzhou Yuan, a small village on Chishan Island in the center of the lake, saw it as a chance to make money instead of a threat to their lives and property in the past.
"The floodwaters will bring plenty of natural feed for the fish we kept in the fishing cages in the lake, and our per capita income this year is expected to increase by 150 yuan (18 dollars)," said village chief Zhou Shiwei.
Just four years ago, the villagers' income was the last thing on Zhou's mind during summer, as the surging floods reduced his duties as village chief to only one thing -- organizing the villagers to protect their property.
Even so, their efforts often were in vain and their village wascompletely inundated in three of the four years between 1996 and 1999.
The village's vulnerability was due to a simple fact: it was just too close to Dongting Lake, China's second largest freshwaterlake and also a major buffer for Yangtze floodwater. Actually, thevillage was founded in 1972 when farmers looking for extra farmland and living space reclaimed the lakeshore and part of the lake.
There were thousands of villages like Xipanshanzhou in the middle reaches of the Yangtze, where millions of farmers, one generation after another, had turned many fertile yet flood-prone wetlands and riverbanks into rice paddies and fish ponds. These villages, similar to the polders of the Netherlands, were known as"Yuan" in Chinese, or "areas circled by embankments".
In the devastating floods which hit the entire Yangtze River basin in 1998, many "Yuans", including Xipanshanzhou, experiencedembankment breaches and suffered huge losses, prompting the Chinese government to launch a comprehensive project for flood control the following year.
A key part of the project was to "give back land to the lakes". This meant the government would persuade and help most farmers living in the unsafe "Yuan" areas to give up their land and move to new higher and safer village sites.
Xipanshanzhou was one of the first villages to be evacuated. In1999 every villager got a government subsidy of 15,000 yuan (1,800US dollars) to build a new house in a high place on Chishan Island.
As the village had given up almost all its 106-hectare farmland, the villagers had to find a new income. With help and guidance from the Worldwide Fund of Nature (WWF), a partner of the Chinese government in wetland protection and restoration, the villagers quickly learnt the skills of pig and duck breeding, as well as fish farming using fishing cages.
According to latest figures from the WWF, the average household income in Xipanshanzhou has now reached 5,700 yuan a year (700 US dollars), much higher than the pre-relocation level of 2,000 yuan (250 US dollars).
"We had filled up the lake for a bit more land and the possibility of a better life. Now that we have returned the land to the lake, we find ourselves really leading a good life through the new business of animal breeding," said Zhou Shuhan, an old villager. "Moreover, flood fighting is no longer an annual routine for us."
So far more than two million people along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River have moved out of their old homes in the "Yuan" areas and started new, safe and prosperous lives, according to government statistics.
As a result, the water surface area of several major lakes connected to the Yangtze has increased by more than 1,400 square kilometers, creating extra floodwater storage of over 10 billion cubic meters.
During this year's flood season, there was no dangerous situation reported along the 3,500-kilometer main Yangtze dykes. Experts said that the improved buffer function of those enlarged lakes should not be dismissed.
"Dykes and embankments are certainly important, but the harmony between man and nature is more important," said Minister of Water Resources Wang Shucheng.
(Xinhua News Agency September 4, 2002)