Water Shortage Solutions from Chinese Peasants

At the southwest of Hubei Province, there is Badong County; in the Badong, there is Gauze Cap Mountain; and on the west side of the mountain there is a 2-m wide canal about 1,100 metres above sea level.

Who built this waterway into the formidable cliff face?

A Courageous Water Shortage Solution from Chinese Peasants

Located inland of China, Badong always has a water shortage problem, and the land could only produce drought tolerant crops like corns and potatoes. Yet on the Gauze Cap Mountain there is a lake 4 km long and up to 300 m wide, which is the largest freshwater source in the province.

A lake on the mountain top 1,100 m above sea level

A lake on the mountain top 1,100 m above sea level

By then in the Lin County of the neighboring Henan Province, Red Flag Canal project at Taihang Mountain was near completion, which inspired and encouraged the Badong peasants to do the same.

So in the middle of 1966, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution when the People’s Commune system was in its heyday, a plan to build a channel to direct the water to the farmland on the plainfields got a go-ahead permission, and after one year of preparation, the project formally launched on the Dragon Boat Festival day, the lunar fifth of May, in the blatant sound from cannons.

Tan Zushun revisited the canal which he helped built 40 years ago.

Aspiration and Sacrifice of Organised Chinese Peasants

Tan Zushun revisited the canal he helped built nearly 50 years ago

Tan Zushun revisited the canal he helped built nearly 50 years ago

Tan Zushun was one of the 10,000 local peasants participated in the construction of the canal, each of them lived and worked on the site for at least a month. By then Tan Zushun was in his twenties and went to work on the site for four times.

Each day each peasant worker would transport 50 kg of sands or limes stones to the field, for which a reward of 0.2 yuan was granted per day, that could allow them to purchase 3 bowls of noodle soup with shallots, or 5 red bean ice blocks (Chinese commodity price was very stable between early 50s and late 70s),

The peasants did everything with their hands using the most basic tools including drill rods and hammers. They made chestnut wood cages with ropes to send two or three people down the cliff to drill boreholes. One day a rock fell from the top and smashed two cages, 6 peasant workers plunged to the valley a thousand metres below and died.

Tunnel in the cliff face

A tunnel in the cliff face

In the cliff face about 150 m above the canal there is a cave biggest enough to accommodate a thousand people. It was where the workers slept, dined and extracted explosive materials from the stones, and the county leaders and village heads met and discussed daily to review the working progress and to make the new decisions.

About 100 m away from the cave, the canal entered a tunnel about 200 m long, which was also produced by the peasants with drill rods, hammers and powders.

The canal is designed in the manner that permits water to flow down naturally around the body of the mountain and descends 30 cm per 1,000 m. For each 500 metres, a water-gate or a water pipe was installed, to control the flow and to channel the water into the farmland and villages.

A World of Utopia

Freshwater in the canal on the cliff face

Freshwater in the canal on the cliff face

It took the peasants 11 years to construct a 2 m wide and 50 km long stone canal into the cliff face.

In September 1978, the entire project was complete. With the help of nearly everyone available in the region – teachers, students and government officials – all dry fields were converted into rice paddy. Next year, Badong County raised a bumper rice crop and the villagers in the lower reach of Dragon King Valley in a neighbouring county beat the drums and gongs and exploded firecrackers when they carried loads of freshly harvested rice to the people in the upper reach to express their gratitudes.

United they stood tall. It is a testimony to what Chinese peasants could achieve when they were organised and inspired to work for the common good beyond their own family interest.

The Remains of the Utopia

Yet the utopia did not last long. Not entirely.

Ever since the peasants were forced to return to old family-based farming system in the 1980s, the community spirit once again lost; everywhere in China, the hydraulic projects established during the commune era are left without proper maintenance. Finally a rock falling from the top of the cliff blocked the Badong canal in the half way and the villages in the Dragon King Valley were once again denied the access to the freshwater.

Yet the memory is still intact and fresh, the memory about how once upon a time Chinese peasants came to prove to the world they could unite to change the human conditions and to achieve something truly great.

Water shortage solution from Chinese peasants: build a canal into cliff face to direct water from a mountain lake to the plainfield (photo: xinhuanet.com)

Water shortage solution from Chinese peasants: build a canal into cliff face to direct water from a mountain lake to the plainfield (photo: xinhuanet.com)

This is a song of 1960s praising the peasant organisation the People’s Commune:

The People’s Commune Is Like A Vine

“The People’s Commune is like a vine, we peasant members are like melons. When the vine is strong, melons grow big.”

The rylic celebrates a community spirit and can be summarised as the following:

China problem ultimately is peasant problem. For thousands of years, Chinese history alternates between order and chaos, and nearly all the chaoses and the changes of dynasty were the result of unfair land distribution, as over the years the farmland had been concentrated in the hand of a small number of rich and powerful, while the majority of peasants became landless labourers. It is a hotbed for violent revolution aiming at land redistribution.

The collectively owned Commune system is a unique Chinese invention based on particular China situation. For the first time in history Chinese peasants had been organised with a hope to help the nation to deviate from that fateful loop.

However, while the Commune system can help nurture a community spirit, to make it work in the first place a certain degree of community spirit must have already existed. It was the case in most Chinese rural, but not all. In some parts of Anhui, like Fengyang County, where Little Hill Village (Xiaogangcun) located, community spirit is completely lacking and selfishness rules. In these places, the commune system is destined to fail.



  • donald

    Totally amazing it reminds me of “pillars of earth” the building of a cathedral in the middle ages. So much effort and sweat making something “impossible” with just basic tools. In this case an aqueduct running along a cliff, imagining the project alone is a work of human destiny . Building it is just incredible. Sadly like many works of man they fall into disrepair. Are there any plans to repair it?

    • Awen

      For a people to rise to the change, they need to be inspired by an insightful and courageous leader — the rise and fall of the mountain canals are its testimony.

  • Jyl

    Just “wow”…!!! It’s amazing what people can do with even the most basic of tools. It’s fascinating to think that these people actually slept and ate in a cave on the cliff face! And such a shame that people had to die from rock falls when all they wanted was one of the most basic human rights of access to clear water. I’d love to know that this community-built canal is still running but it’s so sad that it isn’t. Would it be so difficult for, say, an army helicopter to remove the boulder blocking it…? Great article. Educational. I love this sort of thing. Great work 🙂

    • Awen

      There are some water canals built by the peasants still in use today (like Red Flag Canal), but most abandoned, like many state-built hydraulic infrastructures, because few young people stay in the land to grow food — they prefer to work in the construction fields or factories in the cities. The Chinese government in the recent decades is severely shortsighted, all that they want are the big projects to show the world how great China looks under their leadership.

  • Jay

    Hi Awen, this was a very touching article but very inspiring to see how the locals came together to find a solution to their water shortage in the face of adversity. It took a lot of hard work but they eventually built the canal for fresh water and even though the story doesn’t have a good ending it still showed how determination can achieve results, something we all need to be reminded of from time to time! thanks for sharing this!

    • Awen

      Hi Jay, your comment is a great abstract that summarises the whole story and the lessons coming with it. I had a heavy heart when I researched and wrote this post which was promoted by the news of the death of a retired Chinese official who is the symbol of a destructive force to this community spirit. But I believe the high human aspiration will triumph again.

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