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Beijing Water Oral History SerieS

My Home and Water: A people’s Account

Yongding River in
Mentougou District

By Shi He
Translation by Madeleine Ross and Fang Li

Below is the sixth in a series of oral histories about Beijing water, as told to Shi He by 60-year-old
Wang Yongsen. Wang Yongsen is a farmer and longtime resident of a mountain village in Mentougou
District about 70 kilometres due west of downtown Beijing.

Wang Yongsen (60 years old) with the current, then it has to be hauled. But
there’s no proper river transport network.
Mentougou District, Yanchi Zhen (Goose Wing
Town), Henantai Cun (Henantai Village). As for fish, there were plenty in the river when we
were young. There was never any variety in the

he people in our village originally came way they were prepared; they were just stewed,
from Yanchi Zhen (Goose Wing Town). I’ve and then sprinkled with a bit of salt. Carp were
heard the older folks say that many years the most plentiful, and there were also Crucian
ago, a man from Yanchi looked southward from carp and catfish. In those days no one went after
the north bank of the river, saw that this area of loach. It’s only in the last few years that they have
land was pretty good and thinking that it could started fishing for loach in the bottom of rivers
be opened up, he crossed the Yongding River to and creeks. The biggest carp I’ve ever seen was 15
the southern bank to set up home on this plateau, kilos and I’ve managed to catch three shrimp that
founding Henantai Village. He had five sons who were over half a foot long. We used to use cloth
then had five families that have extended down to made out of very thin paper threads, but later
the present day. We are the descendants of those people began fishing by throwing chemicals in,
first five families. and almost as soon as the chemicals hit the water,
the fish would all come floating to the surface. I
There’s no water transportation on this river. I haven’t been fishing for shrimp since they began
don’t know what the situation is like further down using chemicals. Now there are no shrimp to be
on the plain, but up here in this mountainous seen, even when chemicals are thrown in. People
area we can’t manage river transport – not even still go fishing in the river, but they can only catch
rafts. Actually I should say that there is a little: if tiny little carp like this, not even the length of the
anyone needs to build a house, they go into the palm of my hand.
forest upstream of here, and float the tree trunks
down one by one. The way it’s done is to hammer There’s no comparison between the volume of
a ring into the log, fasten a rope onto it and then water in the river when I was young and the
walk ahead and lead it down. If it won’t flow down volume today. You could even say that there’s
Yongding River in Mentougou District | Beijing Water Oral History No. 6 | July 2008

no water anymore, it’s just about all dried up. Before 1980, corn, sorghum and soybeans were
Upstream, the electric power station at Xiamaling planted on about 200 mu (1 mu = 1/15 hectares)
was built in the 1950s, and before power was of village land on the mountain slopes. By then,
generated we used to go and visit the caves the rains were already not as good as in earlier
there. They hadn’t built the Zhuwo Reservoir years, and it never rained much in one go. But at
above the power station at that stage so the water least it rained a little, and we could still harvest
came directly from the Guanting Reservoir in a some crops. The flood plains near the river, where
continuous flow. Guanting was the only reservoir wheat was planted, needed to be irrigated. But we
at the time. After the Zhuwo Reservoir and the stopped irrigating after July or August, when the
Xiamaling power station were built there wasn’t wheat was harvested. It wasn’t like now, when
much water left downstream in the river. Adding irrigation is needed all year long. On the dry areas
that extra reservoir blocked the water. Now it’s of the mountain, we can’t grow anything anymore,
only before the rainy season each year when there just isn’t enough rain. We could plant crops
there’s concern about the dam walls being able but we wouldn’t have anything to harvest, so we’ve
to hold up, that a few hundred or thousand cubic simply stopped planting anything.
metres of water are released, and there’s a little
more water downstream. Normally we rely on Originally, wheat was grown on the flood plain,
the power plant releasing a bit more water when but when large areas of land began to be used for
they’re generating electricity. For the first three or forestry2, fruit trees were planted instead: apples
four years they released water every two or three were grown on the higher plain while jujubes and
days. But in the last two years, they’ve released apricots were lower down, closer to the river. We
less, sometimes you don’t see water even once a still had two water pumps in the village, and had
month, and when it comes, it’s much less than to spend money on electricity each year to pump
before. water to irrigate the flood plains, but then we were
only allowed to water the fruit trees on the flood
The main reason there is so little water is because plain and we weren’t allowed to grow vegetables
it doesn’t rain. It hasn’t poured with a saturating any more. For example, cabbage required water
rain around here for twenty years. What do I in autumn but all the fruit had been harvested
mean by that? In these parts we say that, whether by then and didn’t need water, so the pumps had
it’s heavy or light rain, the mountain slopes get stopped operating. With such a little scrap of
deeply saturated until the water seeps out of land, it wasn’t worth turning the pumps on even
the mountains and flows for ten days or half a once, so the cabbages died for lack of water. The
month – that’s what we call properly wet. Standing soybeans I planted last year never got harvested.
under the big Chinese scholar tree (Huaishu) at Now, all the vegetables we eat are store bought,
the entrance to our village, if you look toward even though the vegetables we grew ourselves
the channel, that’s the only place where you’ll see were the tastiest and the sweetest, because they
water coming out now, and when it does, that’s were grown with farmyard manure and no
when we consider the land to be soaking wet. I chemical fertilizers were put on them.
haven’t seen water coming out like that for over
30 years. Water comes out in this channel of the All the apricot trees on the hills died. And if
river after a cloudburst, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t die, any apricots on them are just
anything. The year of the 2003 SARS epidemic like dried-up little soybeans. Once upon a time
it happened once. If you ask me why it never they were as big as a ten cent coin (1 inch), and
rains, I’d say it’s just like the story of the Fengxian
Prefecture in “Journey to the West.”1 he was punished by the Jade Emperor with a drought
lasting many years. The rains did not return until the
1 In the story of “Journey to the West,” the head of the prefecture apologized to the Jade Emperor.
head of Fengxian prefecture behaved improperly so 2 In 1998.

Yongding River in Mentougou District | Beijing Water Oral History No. 6 | July 2008

as for the walnut trees, a few really flourished in them. It’s because they have no water in Yinma’an,
all of the creeks. Now all the walnut trees have and because the water they had in Yanchi didn’t
disappeared, and if there are any still alive, it’s meet standards when tests were done. In his
only the trunks that are left and all the branches earlier term of office, our previous village head
have died. Before 1980, we never took water with reported that the water in the Henantai was also
us when we went up into the mountains because below standard, and that a well was needed. When
all the little creeks had spring water bubbling out the new village head3 came into the position,
of them. Now, wherever you go, you have to take he didn’t bother to do anything about the issue.
water as the creeks have all dried up. Meanwhile, the Party secretary’s word is law. But
the Party secretary bought a house in Mentougou
Have a look at the houses in our village; all the town and, after retiring from office, he got on his
ones built above the row of Chinese scholar trees horse and raced off there. So the ordinary people
(Huaishu) are old, and all the ones below the trees simply had nowhere to turn. I feel that we should
are new homes – they have been built nearly to take advantage of the “build new socialist villages”
the edge of the river. Who would have dared to policy and grab the opportunity to get a deep well
build there in earlier years? Now it hasn’t rained dug. It would be underground water, and better
for I don’t know how long, and on top of that than river water.
there are dams and reservoirs blocking the water
off upstream – Zhaitang, Weizishui, Zhuwo, and However, the well in Yanchi is actually too deep,
Guanting reservoirs – so no matter how much it so just getting a little water out of it costs a lot
rained the river wouldn’t rise, and that’s why the in electricity. If it were just for drinking there
area near the river is now covered in houses. would be enough, but these days, with everyone
having baths, washing and scrubbing, people are
In the village we reckon that we use well water, using too much water. But moving people who
but in fact it’s water from theYongding River. live in the north down to the south wouldn’t be a
The Great Officials’ Well (Da guan jing), as it was solution either.
called, used to be the main well in the village, it’s
over there near the corner store. It was dug down Author’s Commentary
to the river water table, so it’s five metres deep,
and the water was winched out. But later when Henantai is a small village on the middle reaches
there was less water in the river, the well dried of the Yongding River in Mentougou District.
up. There was no choice but to dig another well Wang Yongsen’s ancestors established the village
at the edge of the river, into which concrete pipes of Henantai in the Qing Dynasty, where they have
were sunk. That well was also pretty shallow, and lived ever since. During the resistance against the
water could be lifted out with just a carrying pole Japanese invasion of China, he and his father fled
and bucket. But, once we received running water, to Hebei Province, returning to Henantai Village
the well was filled in. Our running water also in 1950.
comes from a well dug next to the river, where it
is pumped to the surface and then put into a water We know from eyewitness accounts, that as the
tank – it’s all water from the Yongding River. climate has become drier in the last 30 years,
However, the water we get now is dirty and not as there has been a decrease in the amount of
good as it used to be, because it encrusts things water in the river, and an increase in pollution.
with scale. Henantai’s ecosystem as well as farmers’ living

If the drought continues, even the people living

3 Normally, in China’s rural villages, there is a
in mountainous areas will be totally parched. All
village head and a party boss: the former is in charge
the villages these days are digging deep wells;
of village business, while the latter is in charge of party
Yinma’an and Yanchi villages have already got
affairs. The latter usually has more power.

Yongding River in Mentougou District | Beijing Water Oral History No. 6 | July 2008

conditions and ability to grow food have changed Shentou Electricity Power Plant – transmitting
a great deal. Trees that were economically power to Beijing, Tianjin and Tangshan area.
important in the area, such as apricots and Water from Shentou Springs is also used to wash
walnuts, have become unproductive to the point coal from the Pingshuo coalmine, China’s largest
that they are dying, dry farming is disappearing, open-cut mine. On top of that there are 17 electric
irrigated farming is prohibitively expensive, and pumping stations in this area, irrigating more
domestic water use, even just for drinking, is than 40,000 hectares of agricultural land. Even in
in imminent crisis. The prospect of “having no Wang Yongsen’s mountain village of Henantai,
water to drink on the edge of a river”4 is a serious irrigation and tap water is provided.
As water volume in the Yongding River has
People in a position to directly observe the decreased, water quality has continuously
situation on the land are of the opinion that declined. A serious rise in the level of organic
decreasing rainfall is the main reason for the matter and fertilizer runoff in the water is likely
lack of water, and meteorological data bears this the reason why people in Henantai report their
out. Since records started being kept, Beijing’s water “encrusts things with scale.” The water
annual average precipitation amounted to 630 pollution comes mainly from direct effluents
millimetres a year, but after 2000 this dropped to of household sewage and upstream industrial
less than half that amount wastewater. After 1997, water quality in the
Yongding River deteriorated to Grade 5, and
But instead of contracting when rainfall was no longer used as a source for Beijing’s
decreased, human activity and irrigated drinking water; it could only be used for industrial
agriculture along the Yongding River has purposes. Beijing’s Water Bureau announced
increased. According to 1995 statistics, 267 dams in 2007 that after several years of improved
of different sizes were built in the upper reaches management, water in the Yongding River had
of the Yongding River between the 1950s and generally become drinkable once again, but
the 1990s. The area of land under irrigation Beijing still does not use water from Yongding
expanded to 5.4 million mu of land. In addition, a River as a source of potable water.
number of industries were developed, all of which
require a high level of water consumption, such
as mining, smelting, electricity generation and
chemical manufacturing. The water flowing into My Home and Water: A People‘s Account
the Guanting Reservoir decreased from nearly
2 billion cubic metres of water annually to 400 Beijing, once famous for its sweet spring water
million cubic meters in the 1990s. In 2006, only and clear-flowing rivers is now infamous for
41 million cubic metres of water flowed into the its polluted canals and dried up riverbeds. My
reservoir, and it stored only one hundred million Home and Water: A People‘s Account provides a
cubic metres of water – not even a tenth of what it rare uncensored glimpse of life and water in the
was designed to store. It is so dry that the bottom ancient capital of Beijing and surrounding areas –
of the reservoir is visible. as told by longtime residents.

Right at the source of the Yongding River Translation, editing and online publication of
at Shentou Springs, a 1.37 million kilowatt the series by Chinese author Dai Qing and Probe
hydroelectric power station has been built – the International has been made possible by funding
from the Foundation Open Society Institute (Zug).
For more information, contact Probe International
4 Because of diminished flow or because the
at info@probeinternational.org
water has been polluted. Here, the author is being