Thirsty Dragon at the Olympics

Dai Qing – The New York Review of Books

Copyright The new York Review of Books
Volume 54, Number 19 · December 6, 2007
… By the late 1960s, the Ministry of Hydrology in which my father-in-law had worked was preoccupied with the overwhelming task of trying to deal with the ongoing ecological disaster created by the Great Leap. Even my father-in-law’s hometown in Jixian County, Hebei province, had been devastated. His village had been submerged when they dammed the Jizhou River to create the Yuqiao Reservoir, less than one hundred kilometers from the Guanting Reservoir. The inhabitants of 141 villages had been resettled during the building of that project. There probably wouldn’t have been any complaints if the dam had really benefited local farmers.
But as was the case with so many grandiose dam-building projects, the local cadres behind the Yuqiao Reservoir had failed to ascertain the geological makeup of the area. The two-kilometer-long dam was built on sandy soil. Within a few years water was seeping out to create a vast marshland downstream. The result was the destruction of 50,000 acres of land that had provided food for the population of nearly one million people in the six major counties downstream. What was left, so Dejia told me, was a bumpy moonscape that could no longer support agriculture of any consequence. The farmers had long since been forced to leave their homes, but they snuck back to their ruined towns and eked out a living, harvesting only a fraction of the food they used to produce. To this day those villagers are still on state welfare.
Meanwhile, the authorities in Beijing are preparing for the competitors and visitors who will descend on the Chinese capital next August for the 2008 Olympics. Unprecedented efforts have gone into transforming the city. Of course, international audiences will mostly be concerned with who jumps the highest or runs the fastest. But Beijing, the capital of a “rapidly rising” China, is anxious to show off its architectural magnificence: the grand Olympic Stadium (the “Nest”), the “Water Cube” built for swimming events, all the new luxury hotels, the Rem Koolhaas–designed China Central TV building, and the multilane ring roads around the city.
While the farmers living on the outskirts of greater Beijing are given strictly controlled allocations of water, in central Beijing the people in charge are celebrating the construction of the ultimate “water follies” which will be ready in time for the Olympic year. These include the vast lake that will surround the titanium, egg-shaped National Grand Theater next to the Great Hall of the People, just off Tiananmen Square, as well as the largest fountain in the world at the Shunyi “Water Heaven”—one that can shoot 134 meters high. The Shunyi water park has been built on the dried-out remains of the Chaobai River—no irony intended. And then there are the hundred golf courses that have been laid out in greater Beijing. These infamous “water guzzlers” occupy over 20,000 acres of land and their imported turf has become a serious drain on the city’s dwindling water resources.
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