Girls liberated by British gift of pounds 117

Across the arid mountainsides around Dabang village in the far west of China, fetchingwater is girls' work. Ma Fatima, a 13-year-old who is so shy she will barely talk, has for several years made three or four trips a day to fill her family's water buckets.

Until recently, each journey meant either a two-hour round trip to the river valley, or a hike to a dribbling spring at the top of a nearby hill where she would have to queue for her turn, often late into the night. Fatima, like most of the girls in the area, has never been spared from these labours to go to school.

The difficulty of obtaining water has blighted the lives of the girls and women in the mountain villages in this area for decades. "In the past, girls from other villages did not want to marry into our village because there was no water," said Ma Quanshan, a 32-year-old teacher. Even when the water was finally carried to the village, it was muddy and contaminated with animal excrement.

Two months ago all this changed for Dabang, the result of local people who decided something had to be done, and the donation of pounds 117 from the little-known British Partnership Scheme. Not a penny was allowed near the local government officials down in the valley; nor did any expensive foreign consultants appear on the books.

The money paid for the materials and the skilled labour to construct a "water-box", a utilitarian concrete container, over a previously buried natural spring. Every family sent someone to help, and this small amount of carefully-targeted money has transformed the life of the village. Inside the water-box is a permanent supply of hundreds of gallons of clean drinking water, just a 20-minute round-trip from Dabang. Teacher Ma's wife grinned: "It saves me an hour and a half for each trip. At the top of the mountain we used to have to wait for a long time, but now the water is ready waiting for us."

It was the simplest of ideas, and it worked. In all, by the end of this autumn, pounds 1,800 of British aid money will have built 15 such water-boxes in these hills, bringing convenient water to 1,100 villagers. The question is why it took until 1997 and needed British money to happen.

Dabang village, in the eastern part of Qinghai province, is one of the poorest in China. The region has a high proportion of minority nationalities, mainly Muslim Hui and Buddhist Monguor people. The mountain villagers exist at subsistence level; Dabang's adobe mud houses are heated by burning straw in the winter, when temperatures can fall to -20C, the harvests are regularly hit by lack of rain, and electricity did not arrive until 1990. The village has yet to acquire a television.

The status of women is particularly diminished by a reluctance to "waste" money educating girls who will "marry out". In Dabang village primary school, for instance, only two of 20 pupils are girls; by law, all girls should be in school.

But the reason that little has changed in these villages after two decades of Chinese economic reform has just as much to do with the culture of Chinese government and the helplessness which these illiterate villagers feel in the face of corrupt cadres. Qinghai is poor, but not poor enough to stop 15 provincial officials going on a two-week "inspection tour" of Israel and Egypt this summer. (There is, incidentally, no foreign investment or trade link with Egypt, and no likelihood of any.) The next scheduled provincial inspection tour will be to Japan.

Dabang is remote, but not that remote. It is a one-hour hike from the main road in the valley, up a hilly path. Yet not one senior official from the Zhongchuan township government in the valley, let alone anyone from the Minhe county government, has come to see what living conditions are like in the villages over which they have jurisdiction.

One old villager, whom it would be unwise to name, said: "The township governor and the party secretary have not visited here for three years. In the past, the old governor came here regularly." Another added: "This is the poorest sort of place. Transportation is poor, so they cannot come by car. So they don't come." They don't care, he could have added.

This newspaper's experience says it all. Arrival in Minhe county capital immediately prompted the appearance of three cadres who ordered huge amounts of food which this paper refused to pay for. One was despatched to accompany me, and on arrival at Zhongchuan township, a veteran local figure, who has held one or other senior township position for the past three decades, ordered and started munching his way through large plates of mutton - safe in the knowledge that the foreign journalist would pick up the bill.

The next day, as we set off up the mountain, there were no township officials in sight, and the Minhe minder decided that he could not, after all, face the walk up to the villages.

On arrival in Dabang, the warmest of welcomes and two-hours of non-stop cooking was laid on in thanks for the British money and the water-box, regardless of who the British visitor was. "It's really a good thing! Before, the water was dirty water. Now it is clean water," said Ma Sane, 30, whose 11-year-old daughter has been fetching the water for two years.

No township official has yet bothered to turn up for an official "opening" of a water-box. When we returned to the valley at the end of the day, the main comment from the Minhe cadre was that it would be a far, far better thing if the British money could in future be channelled instead through Minhe county government - a change that the British will not be making.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Account Manager - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing, ambitious, en...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future
Berlusconi's world of sleaze: The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM

Berlusconi's world of sleaze

The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM
Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

Films and theme parks are just the beginning. Disney believes its control of the now decades-old franchise can bring in merchandise and marketing millions for years to come
Could the golden age of the gaming arcade ever be revived in the era of the Xbox?

Could gaming arcades be revived?

The days when coin-ops were the only way to play the latest video games are gone. But a small band of enthusiasts are keeping the button-pushing dream alive
Edinburgh Fringe 2015: The 'tampon tax' has inspired a new wave of female comedians to reclaim period jokes

Heard the one about menstruation?

Yes, if you have been at the Fringe, where period pieces are taking centre stage