Zhu Maoming, 76, one of the 400,000 people left homeless by last summer's floods along the Huaihe River, has moved into a new house made of bricks and cement on a high terrace within Mengwa, one of the 28 basins along the river used to drain off water to reduce the threat of flooding.
Mengwa is the major flood basin behind Wangjiaba, a key flood control gate regulating the flow of water in the upper and middle reaches of the river, which runs through East China's Anhui Province.
Covering an area of 180 square kilometres, Mengwa is capable of holding 750 million cubic metres of water, a capacity equivalent to that of seven large reservoirs, when the flood diversion sluice gates are fully lifted at Wangjiaba.
But Mengwa is also home to about 150,000 residents, who live on 12,000 hectares of fertile farmland in the basin and are therefore faced with the possibility of property damage every flood season.
Zhu's old house in the Mengwa basin was ruined by last summer's flood when water was diverted into the basin to lower flash flood water levels upstream from the Wangjiaba flood control gates. Residents were, of course, evacuated to safety, but their homes were destroyed by the diverted waters.
Massive post-flood reconstruction along the Huaihe River was launched last October. Instead of rebuilding homes on their original sites in the basin's low-lying areas, authorities are building new houses for the displaced farmers on the four highland areas within the Mengwa basin.
With a government subsidy of 17,000 yuan (US$1,807) for each family, many new houses have been built on the four highlands. The new highland homes are usually less than 5 kilometres away from the old settlement site, making it convenient for farmers to look after their crops in non-flood season.
So far, over 378 million yuan (US$45.5 million), nearly 80 per of which comes from the government, has been earmarked for improving Mengwa's flood-control capacity, including the consolidation of embankments, road building and the construction of claybanks to shield the highland housing for the relocated residents, local officials said.
At this point, the raised clay banks surrounding the highlands have been basically completed.
Zhu's new house is located in a town also called Wangjiaba, which is one of the four high-ground safety areas in the Mengwa basin.
Aside from a bed, some clothing and a pile of garlic in one corner, there is almost nothing in Zhu's new home, which has a main room of about 14 square metres and a small kitchen.
"All of my belongings were washed away by last summer's floods," the old man sighed.
Although the house is not yet connected to water and electricity services, he feels secure. "From now on, I need not worry about being drowned by floods any more and I can spend the rest of my life here in piece and comfort."
Pointing to the many new houses built in rows on the high ground, Liang Yongqin, head of Wangjiaba Town, said that by the end of this month, the more than 6,200 residents from Mengwa's lowlands can resettle here.
In the past, when the floods came, people living in the basin's lowland areas had to leave their farmland and their homes and move to higher ground.
"Now we can live in safety in these new houses built on high ground," said 67-year-old Wang Zhaolian, who also moved into a new house in Wangjiaba Town.
Last summer, the Huaihe, China's third longest river, suffered the worst flood it had seen since 1954.
During the deluge, more than 4.6 million hectares of crops were inundated in Henan, Anhui and Jiangsu provinces, with yields cut by at least 30 per cent in most agricultural areas.
Nine out of the total of 28 flood basins along the river had to be put in use, forcing about 700,000 villagers to give up their homes and farmland to the floodwater in Anhui, Jiangsu and Henan provinces.
Housing for the 400,000 left homeless has been treated by the government as a key part of its post-flood reconstruction in the Huaihe Valley.
"Relocating them from the lowlying ground in the basins is a new way to restore harmony between man and nature and strengthen the flood-control strategy along the river," said Qian Min, chief official of the Huaihe River Commission (HRC) under the Ministry of Water Resources.
According to the overall resettlement programme, people moving from watercourses and riverside lowlands will be settled at Bao Zhuang Wei or safe high ground villages, inside the safety levees or on terraces above the highest water level of the river in flood conditions.
So far, 30 per cent of the new housing, mostly in Anhui, has been completed, Qian said. "It is hoped that the rest will be ready for occupancy before this winter."
The central government has allocated a special fund of 2.2 billion yuan (US$265 million) this year to subsidize the flood victims and to assure the safety of the new dwellings.
"It's the first time that the people have agreed to move, after putting up with the river's flooding for generations," Qian said, adding that he hoped that "in the future, as many as 1.2 million villagers or over 60 per cent of the total population living in the 28 officially designated flood basins along the river can be moved out to allow the basins to be exclusively used for flood control."
"This means a significant change in the way flooding is dealt with," Qian noted.
People living on its waterways is one of the main reasons for the Huaihe River flooding, water experts agree.
In the past, when low water season came, farmers settled on the lowlands and, to protect their farmland, built increasing numbers of independent small clay dykes to protect their fields from the water, which greatly narrowed the watercourses and retarded the flow of the river in flood season.
Lakes and lowlands alongside the river are natural buffer reservoirs that can absorb the flood waters, but they have been gradually taken over by people because of population pressures, officials said.
Over the past 50 years, the area of riverside lakes in Anhui Province has been reduced by 38.5 per cent and most lakes alongside the Huaihe have disappeared.
Today, nearly 2 million people are residing in areas surrounded by 28 lakes, lowlands and land at the edge of the river.
The water ecosystem is also greatly harmed when people occupy watercourses and build dams to enclose and block the water.
And the cost of evacuating all of these people when floods come is also too high. Experts estimate that about 200 billion yuan (US$24.096 million) would be needed.
"This is a human-based fundamental way for government to ensure safe habitation for locals living in areas that are natural flood basins," Qian said.
Now that locals have been moved to safe villages on high ground they will not need to be evacuated when the flood basins in the area are used to hold excess floodwater.
"This means evacuation of locals during flood season along the Huaihe will be over, and people's lives will be ensured with the new flood-management concept," experts working with Qian noted.
Key flood-control projects
China has, since last October, poured a record 5 billion yuan (US$605 million) into the river's flood-control and its chronic waterlogging.
Annually, 4 billion yuan (US$481 million) will have to be spent, and the investment will be over twice as much as the average input from 1991 to 2003, said Qian.
The funds, mostly raised through issuing public bonds, will be mainly spent on 19 key projects of the Huaihe River, of which 60 per cent will be paid by the central government with the rest coming from Anhui, Jiangsu, Henan and Shandong provinces along the river.
The projects included reservoir building, dam consolidation, the control and harnessing of the river's tributaries and channelling the river into the sea.
The 19 projects are estimated to cost 44.7 billion yuan (US$5.4 billion) in total. By the end of last year, about 22 billion yuan (US$2.7 billion) had already been used with construction fully accelerated.
All the projects will be completed by 2007. By then, the system will be capable of regulating big floods in the middle and lower reaches of the river with most key cities, coal mines, oil fields and trunk railways under protection.
To date, four out of the 19 projects have been completed with major work on three others basically done.
As for the remaining 12 projects, construction has been fully kicked off on 11 of them and most of them can be partially put into operation to withstand unusual cresting on the river before its major flood season, scheduled for next month if needed.
(China Daily June 8, 2004)