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Country Water Actions

Country water actions are stories that showcase water reforms undertaken by individuals, communities, organizations, and governments in Asia-Pacific countries and elsewhere.

People’s Republic of China: Water Cellars Change Drought-Affected Communities’ Lifestyles
December 2007

By Maria Christina Dueñas Knowledge Management Officer Costly, arduous, and time consuming. That’s how the women of drought-affected areas in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) describe their daily task of fetching water from faraway sources. But thanks to a lot of private donations and a project involving bricks and concrete, they now have enough water for drinking and irrigation at their doorsteps. LIVING THE WATER-SCARCE LIFE Drought is a familiar occurrence in many parts of western PRC. Annual rainfall is only about 300 millimeters (mm) or less yet annual evaporation is as high as 1,500– 2,000 mm. On the average, residents can use only around PINNING HOPES ON RAIN Given the distance of the water sources, rainwater—despite its shortage—has become a major source of water for these drought-stricken communities. They built underground containers, called cellars, to store rainwater. But because money was scarce, the cellars were crudely made from soil and other raw materials, and rainwater often leaked as soon as it is stored. All these changed in August 2000 when the China Women’s Development Foundation (CWDF) and the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) jointly launched the Water Cellars for Mothers Project. The project’s concept is simple enough. If the poor and drought-stricken households have their own concrete, brick-lined water cellars, then they can store enough water and use it for drinking, household activities, and even irrigation. A typical concrete cellar can store up to 50-80m3 of rainwater, enough for a year’s worth of drinking water for a family of 3-5 members plus livestock, with some to spare for irrigation. The changes that took place after the construction of a water cellar were as clear as the water the locals can now drink the whole year through. “The first thing I do every morning is to see my yard and fresh vegetables, the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen,” gushes octogenarian Ma Baoping, another resident of the Dongxiang County in Gansu. Before, he could only spare enough water to grow potatoes. Now he has lush vegetables in his yard, thanks to a steady supply of water from the cellar. Health and hygiene improved significantly as the locals acquired the luxury of daily baths, washing of clothes, and even cleaning of their houses and neighborhoods. Incomes likewise increased as the people began raising livestock and planting trees and vegetables for profit.

110 cubic meters (m 3 ) per person, roughly 15% of the national average and 3% of the world average. With hardly any rainfall, most of the villages face critical water shortages. “We used to limit ourselves to 4 pails of water every day—drinking water for the family and for the sheep,” says Ma Ra Bi Ye, a member of the Dongxiang people, a small Muslim ethnic minority who live mostly in Gansu Province. “We worry that the water would run out so we’re very careful in using it,” added Mrs. Ma. For mountainous areas such as Gansu, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, or northern Shaanxi Province, the normal practice is for women to fetch drinking water from miles away, carrying them in donkey or horse carts. In worse cases, like the Wa Zixian village in Gansu, women walk the long miles carrying water containers on their backs, spending the whole day collecting water that is only enough for a day’s use. The lack of water compounded the many problems already experienced by these poor communities. They could not eat fresh fruits and vegetables because there’s no water to grow them. Hygiene was neglected as they hardly bathed or washed their clothes. Children often suffered from diarrhea and other illnesses brought by unsafe water. Education and livelihood were foregone for the more urgent task of fetching water daily.

BUILDING ALLIES What is not so simple about the project, though, is the funding source. Each new water cellar costs more than 2,000 yuan —too expensive for the poor families of western PRC. So the CWDF and ACWF worked overtime to raise much needed funds. Among the first allies to support the Water Cellars for Mothers Project were private companies. Around the time of the project launch, the heads of Perfect China Co, Ltd. saw a documentary on water shortages in western PRC. Shocked at the site of arid lands and thirsty children, the company donated 1.5 million yuan in cash and kind to build water cellars. Perfect China Co, Ltd. was the first firm to donate to this cause, and was soon followed by other enterprises and private individuals. Today, the project has raised over 350 million yuan (US$47.5 million), which were used to build more than 100,000 water cellars and 1,200 water supply facilities in 23 provinces. The local governments are also key players in this project. Of the 2,000 yuan needed per water cellar, they contribute 1,000 yuan and the rest are shouldered by the private donations. The locals, on the other hand, contribute by doing the actual construction of the cellars. And women in the villages, particularly those representing local chapters of the ACWF, provide crucial support by mobilizing the community, identifying the families most in need of support, and providing linkages with various government departments and donors. Another strength of the project is its relationship with the media. “Through media coverage of the water shortage in the western areas, more and more people learned about the situation and the living conditions of ordinary people. The publicity has encouraged more support for our project,” says Qin Guoying, Deputy Secretary-General of the CWDF. The project has now been in operation for 7 years, and feedback from the donors and media have been positive. “We make sure that we maintain our credibility,” says Qin, “by being very transparent about our operations, particularly disbursement of donations, and by bringing the donors and media closer to the communities benefiting from their support.

CLIMBING OUT OF THE CELLAR—ONE PLUS FIVE MODEL After 7 years of implementation, CWDF and ACWF have expanded their assistance to include 5 other components. The provision of safe drinking water remains their priority, but they now also help communities shake off poverty by promoting health education, environmental protection, and hygiene. Labeled the “One Plus Five” model, the project now includes one water cellar plus a hygienic toilet, a methane-generating pit, a fold of poultry and livestock, one “mu” of trees or vegetables, and a tidy courtyard. Statistics indicate that the PRC still has under 300 million people in rural areas without access to safe drinking water. The Water Cellars for Mothers project is part of an incredible effort to guarantee safe water for these people. In 2007, the project built more than 5,000 cellars and more than 60 small, central water supply projects 1 , benefiting roughly 170,000 people. In the next 5 years or so, it hopes to solve the drinking water problems of another half a million people. These numbers may not be big enough given the magnitude of need, but the CWDF and ACWF, together with their partners, see no reason to give up or slow down. The lack of water for their daily needs and irrigation impairs the health and economic prospects of western PRC’s rural households, so that problem needs to be solved, and solved fast. RELATED LINKS Water Champion Guoying Qin: One Plus Five—A Model for Rainwater Harvesting Videodocumentary: China’s Water Challenge

_____________________________ 1 Central water supply projects are facilities located in strategic positions where people can get flowing water at regular times. The sizes of the facilities differ—some can serve a large segment of the population; others can only serve a few households, e.g. those located in mountainous areas.

*This article was first published online at ADB's Water for All website in December 2007: The Country Water Action series was developed to showcase reforms and good practices in the water sector undertaken by ADB’s member countries. It offers a mix of experience and insights from projects funded by ADB and those undertaken directly by civil society, local governments, the private sector, media, and the academe. The Country Water Actions are regularly featured in ADB’s Water for All News, which covers water sector developments in the Asia and Pacific region.