October 29, 2010
by Peter Day
I was sitting under a sweet tomato tree in a tiny hamlet in the province of Hubei, in the middle of China, 800km (500 miles) due west of Shanghai.
I was eating the squishy bright orange sweet tomato flesh, on a comfortable low-back leaning chair, dragged out for my benefit by the welcoming farmer's wife. Let us call her Mrs Peng.
In some ways it was idyllic. It reminded me of the self-sufficient little farms along the river Dordogne in France 50 or 60 years ago, when they lived on what they grew, before they discovered tourism and the money economy.
Down below, at the bottom of a tiny valley, was a fishpond with ducks.
Little terraces with harvested rice ran into it. There were one or two goats, a bit of maize, a pig in a lean-to sty, and lots of chickens. Dogs barked erratically when we raised our voices.
Chinese country people are always friendly, but Mrs Peng and her neighbours were also alarmed, so they raised their voices.
This had been a family farm for at least 80 years, she told me. But not for much longer.
A few hundred metres away loomed a huge dam which would create a vast new reservoir, right where we were sitting.
The water level would eventually top the sweet tomato tree. The farm, the house, the pond, the little terraces; all would be drowned by the latest of the huge engineering projects that have been changing the face of China over the past decades.
It is only a few years since they finished the mighty Three Gorges dam that now blocks the river Yangtze not so far from here, forming a new lake 660km long (410 miles) behind it.
The project displaced two million people from their farms and villages, so that millions of townies could benefit from the electricity generated by the massive project.
Now, the Chinese authorities have embarked on another great plan to re-engineer the country, and again it is the Yangtze and the rivers that flow into it that are being worked on.
It is now almost 60 years since Chairman Mao Zedong, on a visit to the parched lands along the Yellow River, first put forward the audacious idea of transferring some of the Yangtze's abundant water nearly 1,400km (870 miles) north. The project finally started in 2002.
The new South-North Water Diversion project is still in its early stages. It may take another 40 or 50 years to complete.
Much of China is dry, dry, country and this is another version of the story of China modernising - an attempt to assuage the thirst of the ever growing cities of the north, swelled by the ceaseless migration of country people in search of work.
This growth engine is not a perpetual motion machine, but for the past 30 years it has seemed like it, and that is what the Chinese planners are still attempting to continue.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of farmers and families in the valleys close to the Danjangkou reservoir (which will hold southern water before it is taken north) are being moved into new settlements.
The Pengs do not want to move. It is not out of sentimentality but because they say the compensation is too low to rebuild what they have, and the new land they will be offered is less productive than the little farm that will be drowned.
I had a generous lunch with another family in the newly constructed village of Shuiyuan, very close to the big reservoir.
The Dongs, another made-up name, say their new home cost them the equivalent of $15,000 (£10,000) to build. They were given $1,500 in compensation for their old home nearby.
The Dongs can still see their old orange trees, all that remains of the now demolished property, pushed aside by the reservoir bank.
These people are not really angry but they feel badly treated.
"We're one family; China is a bigger family," they say philosophically, talking about the benefits the water will bring to the north of the country.
But they fear that much of the compensation money they should be getting has been misdirected to benefit local officials and party members.
Some of the villagers went all the way to Beijing to protest to the South-North Diversion Project officials, and they were told they were troublemakers.
Back home, the families in their new village get used to their new lives in new, larger, but more costly homes.
And under the sweet tomato tree, the Pengs wait for an order to move out and abandon the little valley farm that has been the family home for at least a generation.