Thirsty land sucked dry to irrigate Olympics

It has not rained in Tang County since August and Liu Haishui is not expecting much from his peach crop this year.

Water was always scarce in this arid northern Chinese township several hundred kilometres from Beijing, but competition for it is more intense than ever as his land adjoins a new canal, which is going to pump 300 million cubic metres of water to Beijing to make sure that everything looks lush and green for August's Olympic Games.

The ground is cracked and dusty, but not infertile. In good years, when it rains three or four times, the trees can yield 500 peaches. This year, the harvest is looking more like 300. Water is always a problem in Hebei, and though the local reservoir provides most of his needs, reserves are tight.

"It's much drier than it used to be, hard to make a living. If it rains a couple of times a year, it's OK, but everything is getting drier around here," said Mr Liu, whose name, Haishui, translates as "lake water".

His words are drowned out by a Dongfeng truck carrying rocks and dirt from an earthworks project at the edge of his farm, where workers toil all hours to complete the canal project.

Alarmed by the looming water crisis in the Olympics year, the government has spent 17.4bn yuan (£1.2bn) on the 190-mile canal. When completed, it will be crossed by 118 bridges and link Shijiazhuang in Hebei to the capital, diverting up to 500 million cubic metres of water from four Hebei reservoirs next year.

This plan to irrigate the capital's Olympic ambitions is a part of the south-to-north water transfer project, which will tap the Yangtze river and tributaries to water the arid north by 2010. Water demand is expected to be 2.75 million cubic metres every day during the Games, 30 per cent above normal.

The project bosses say the canal will be finished by next month, and there is no reason to doubt them. But the problem for the farmers is that there is precious little water in Hebei to share. Liu comes from nearby Xianbei village and he runs a shop as a side business, as the farming is too tough, he says. Profits on the farm are around 3,000 yuan a year.

The farmers who lost their land were compensated to the tune of 200 yuan a mature tree, and they received 28,000 yuan per sixth of an acre. It should have been 60,000 yuan, but Liu is not complaining and is happy for the water to go to the games. "The Olympics will be great. I'm going. If I don't get tickets, I'll go to Beijing anyway," he said.

For many years, Hebei has shared its water with the capital, which has a population of 17 million people, and is facing a major water crisis.

Beijing has been affected by drought for 10 years – reservoirs have been badly depleted, water tables have sunk to unprecedentedly low levels, and the capital faces an annual shortfall of a billion cubic metres of water by 2010. Just 10 years ago, you could dig 10 metres to find water; now it is nearly 20 metres.

The government has ordered farmers to stop growing crops and paid them to comply. The reservoirs still cover basic needs but water is a constant worry. Open mines have made much of the water unusable and a lot of the wells and underground rivers have gone as the water table gets ever lower, says one farmer who gives only his surname, Chen.

"There used to be lots of rivers around here, small ones that we could use. But they've all dried up now," he said, wearing the blue jacket and Mao Zedong cap that used to be ubiquitous in China but is now worn mostly by farmers and the rural poor. "Last year wasn't too bad, but it's getting less and less every year," he added.

Chen is examining his land, getting ready to plant corn in April, and his young grandson has come along to help him and his wife. The chances of this little boy staying in this town when he grows up are remote. And even if he does find work around here, there is every chance there will be little water left for him to quench his thirst.