Inner Mongolia – A Land Without Water

“Inner Mongolia – A Land Without Water”

Dateline, SBS Television. 13th February 2008

Inner Mongolia is on the front line of climate change. Already one of the driest regions in China, it is now getting progressively drier and the lack of water  is forcing entire villages to shut down. People are moving en masse to specially set up “ecological migration” villages closer to town, forcing a radical change in life upon them. However a few stubborn souls are refusing to budge.



If you’re unfamiliar with the term ecological migration, you’re not alone. Basically, it means people being forced off their land by climate change. Recently, Bronwock Adcock ventured into the seldom-visited hills and valleys of rural Inner Mongolia where she found their wells have run dry and the locals struggling to maintain their traditional way of life.

REPORTER: Bronwyn Adcock

Inner Mongolia is one of China’s largest and driest regions. It’s never had much water, but global warming is now pushing the land and its people over the edge. I’ve come here to see how the Chinese are coping with these dramatic environmental changes. My first stop is a farming village about half an hour’s drive from the town of Qingshuihe. Villagers here say their communal waterhole started drying up around 10 years ago. Since then, getting enough water to live has been a constant struggle.

WOMAN (Translation): We tried to scoop up some shallow, stagnant water. That was all we could get. It had collected after we had rain during the summer. The rain ran over the stone. The water was very muddy, like sheep’s piss. It stank so much that it was hard to swallow. But we were really thirsty and had to drink it.

Not surprisingly, the shortage of water led to conflict. This 79-year-old says he fought a man who tried to jump his turn in the queue at the waterhole.

MAN (Translation): Whoever puts down his bucket first has the first go. That time it was my brother’s turn. But he was pushed over. Then there was a big fight.

There’s now fierce competition for what’s become the village’s most valuable commodity. One man has struck the local equivalent of gold.

WOMAN, (Translation): Look, there he is!

Wan Ertang is a farmer who’s discovered a new water source and keeps it locked up.

WAN ERTANG, (Translation): I’m in charge of the key. I made the well so I’m in charge.

Wan shares his newly discovered waterhole with just three other families in the village.

WAN ERTANG (Translation): I did the hard work so I should enjoy the benefits. They didn’t work, but they want water. I lock up the well. Otherwise there’d be no water for me. It makes sense, right?

Wan thinks this hole he dug tapped into a rare source of underground water. For all his excitement, though, there’s not much inside.

REPORTER: So how much water is in there now?

WAN ERTANG (Translation): It’s one metre deep.

But every drop is precious.

WAN ERTANG (Translation): Here, water is as precious as cooking oil.

Wan says he tries to share his water with others when he can, but this isn’t always possible. To avert catastrophe here, the local government has supplied people with building materials to make their own rainwater wells. For now, the villagers are getting by. With a rainwater hole and his personal underground water supply, life is definitely better for Wan Ertang that it was before.

WAN ERTANG (Translation): We used the water only for cooking and drinking. But we couldn’t use the water for washing. To save water we didn’t wash our hands or feet very often. Now we wash what we need to wash.

Still, he’s rationed to just five buckets of water a day for his family and his numerous animals and he knows he can never take the water for granted.

WAN ERTANG (Translation): It all depends on the sky. If it rains, we’ll have enough water. There was a big drought a few months ago. We were very worried, thinking there’d be no water. That’s what we thought.

XU SHI, DIRECTOR, INNER MONGOLIA GRASSLANDS INSTITUTE (Translation): Because of global climate change, it’s getting warmer. So drought is occurring. It’s happening around the globe, Including Inner Mongolia.

The Deputy Director of Inner Mongolia’s Grasslands Institute, Xu Shu, says overfarming also plays its part, the land is becoming increasingly fragile.

XU SHU (Translation): There’s some wasteland in the region and some grassland that has been degraded due to overuse. Productivity has decreased and the ecological system is rather fragile. It’s no longer suitable to inhabit.

People are now being forced to abandon the countryside altogether. I’m heading to a remote village about half an hour’s drive from the first village I visited. It’s called Tiger Gap, and is only accessible by foot. I find a village, but no people. All the houses are deserted. Eventually I discover an elderly man, his wife, and their visiting grandson.

VILLAGER, (Translation): Now only the two of us are left. No-one else is around but us two old people.

WIFE, (Translation): There used to be people living around the hill. Now they’ve all moved away.

VILLAGER (Translation): We just keep these few goats and go on living.

REPORTER (Translation): Do you have water for farming?

VILLAGER (Translation): No, we don’t have water for the fields.

Wang Fue and Zhang Jixiang are in their late 60s. They say most people left because it’s too hard to find water. The old couple rely on a crude rainwater hole.

VILLAGER (Translation): The rainwater flows from here, and there from there. When it rains, it flows down there.

They have enough water to survive, but little else.

REPORTER, (Translation): How often do you get to wash your clothes?

VILLAGER (Translation): Every one or two months. I wash when there is water. Otherwise I don’t wash.

When there’s not enough rain their grandson helps collect water from another spot two kilometres away. It’s a long and difficult walk. And even this supply of underground water is running out. The government believes this way of life is unsustainable so it built a new village closer to town and offered subsidised housing to those who agreed to move down there.

VILLAGER (Translation): Up here it’s very difficult to get drinking water. Down there, the local officials allocated some money. They’ve built new houses for villagers to move into. But we don’t want to move down. We just want to stay up here and wait to die.

This move from remote villages into town is being made by hundreds of thousands of people as part of a massive government program. It’s called ‘ecological migration’.

PROFESSOR YONG SHIPENG, ECOLOGIST, (Translation): Ecological migration is a new term. Ecological migration means, as suggested by the term, that, due to ecological degradation, life becomes very difficult, so people migrate elsewhere to start a new life.

Professor Yong Shipeng, an ecologist from the University of Inner Mongolia says this migration is necessary.

PROFESSOR YONG SHIPENG, (Translation): In my view, there is no other alternative. Our government is for the people. When the ecosystem deteriorates in some places and people there can’t make a proper living, the government provides funds and assistance.

This village, on the outskirts of Qingshuihe, is where most of the people from Tiger Gap now live. It’s one of many purpose-built ecological migration villages. Living here is a mixed blessing. This man used to have his own farm in the old village, Now he must rent land to do his farming.

FARMER (Translation): The good thing is the road is better and we have water. But we no longer have land. For a farmer to not have land… I don’t know what to say. I’ve always worked in the fields.

The people here have houses provided by the government and running water for the first time. But, without land, many of these former farmers are struggling for a livelihood.

FARMER 2, (Translation): When I moved down here, I sold my goats and donkey.

REPORTER, (Translation): What do you now?

FARMER 2, (Translation): Nothing. I got rid of everything when I moved down.

Some of the older inhabitants admire the elderly couple who stayed put in the Tiger Gap.

MAN, (Translation): But they made up their minds. So they didn’t move down. They were right.

Ban Gou used to be farmer as well. His village was abandoned two years ago. As a single father supporting two children, he’s had no choice but to find new work.

BAN GOU (Translation): I do any job I can lay my hands on, collecting garbage, loading goods, anything that comes my way.

He’s just scored a job working at a nearby factory. Starting early in the morning, he works seven days a week for around $1.50 a day. It’s barely enough to support his family.

BAN GOU (Translation): I used to live in that house, where those trees are, those five rooms.

Occasionally Ban Gou returns to his old farm. In order to receive government compensation for giving up his land, he must plant trees here. It’s an attempt to restore the dry and degraded land.

BAN GOU (Translation): Next year all the land here will be used for growing trees. The first year the government will pay for the saplings. But the following year you’ll have to buy the saplings for your own plot of land.

While over-farming and global warming are forcing a new way of life upon many, this is also being seen as an opportunity by some entrepreneurs. Ho Jixun is the manager of a new tourist enterprise set up in an abandoned village. Backed by a businessman from Beijing, he’s redeveloping it for tourists.

HO JIXUN, TOURISM WORKER (Translation): I want to open a bar here. I will sit here and drink original Colombian coffee and smoke a Havana cigar. I’ll use these old run-down houses for my bar.

As well as restoring the old village, Ho Jixun is helping other villagers to do up their homes in the traditional style, a display for passing tourists. Private enterprise has also managed what government couldn’t, supplying the villagers with running water.

REPORTER, (Translation): You have running water here now, don’t you? What was it like before?

WOMAN (Translation): There was nothing much here.

Ho Jixun believes that visits to these remote, rural villages are the perfect antidote to the rapid development seen in the rest of China.

HO JIXUN (Translation): I’m from Beijing, the big capital city. I know the kind of environment city people need for relaxation. It will be a suitable place for rest and relaxation for busy white-collar workers from a cosmopolitan city. Are you from Beijing?

CAMERAMAN (Translation): Yes. We’re from the same city.

The tourists seem impressed.

TOURIST (Translation): We couldn’t find this kind of place in the city. Even the remote villages have changed a lot. But this place is very unique.

The only remaining residents of Tiger Gap village are certainly unique. Most experts agree that this land can no longer support humans the way it is used and migration is the only answer. But this old couple isn’t going anywhere.

TIGER GAP VILLAGER (Translation): People say if we get sick or something, alone here, there’s nothing we can do about it, except die. But that doesn’t bother me. I won’t move. No matter what happens, I’m going to live here. It’s a hard life. I’m for a hard life. I like peace and quiet.


Feature Report: Inner Mongolia – A Land without Water