This short story is from a trip to China with WWF in 1999

The Great Wall of Water

One winter’s morning in 1999 I found myself standing on one of the enormous dykes that guide the mighty Yangtze River on its sinuous journey through the state of Hunan in central China. It was cold and damp and the mist rolled on a listless breeze occasionally revealing tantalising glimpses of the vast plain beyond.  In front of me stood a mother with her baby, her five year old son and her Grandmother, and behind them was a scene of utter devastation.  

Where once there had been houses there was just a featureless expanse of silt and rubble.  Through an interpreter the mother explained what had happened.  How the rains a few months earlier had been incessant and how they had been advised to move to the flood shelter: How the Yangtze River had risen eleven metres in a single day:  How the soldiers had formed desperate chains piling sand bags on the stricken dyke wall:  How she, a pregnant mother, had been trampled in a stampede when it looked like the shelter itself was going to swept away by the great wall of water:  How some people refused to leave their houses that sheltered behind the fifteen metre high dyke.  And then she described the catastrophic moment when the dyke finally gave way and the liquid explosion that followed which not only destroyed the buildings but completely annihilated them and even the ground on which they had stood.

When the furious flood waters receded it revealed a gouge two hundred meters wide and eighteen meters deep where houses had once stood.  None of the bodies of the forty four residents who had stayed behind to protect their property was ever found.  They had been buried under the thousands of tons silt that had been deposited once the initial explosive energy of the flood water had dissipated.  

Calmly and implacably the young mother had given us a vivid eye-witness account of what was to become the second worst flood in the history of the Yangtze River – a flood which affected some 200 million people and caused an estimated 120 billion dollars of damage. 

The woman and her family had come back to show us where she had once lived and also to tell us and our minders that she, and what remained of her family, were still living in tents.  She said that food and clothing had been provided but there was still no possibility of returning home in the near future.  She looked tired and exhausted but she had no one else to fight for her so she kept quietly and politely telling us what had happened and just how devastating the flood had been for her family.  

The reason why I, along with Chinese and European experts on conservation, forestry and hydraulic engineering were in Hunan, was to collect information on the affects of the flooding and to see if the state authorities would consider stopping the practise of draining the wetlands around Dongting Lake for agriculture.  This would, in theory, not only secure the habitat for the migratory birds and other wildlife but could act as an area into which flood waters could be diverted – a sort of pressure relief system – thus protecting the heavily populated areas downstream, much as used to happen centuries earlier.  Parts of the Yangtze River basin are among the longest continuously managed hydraulic systems anywhere in the world.  In fact the art of channelling and managing waterways is so ancient in China that there are even gods of hydrology in their mythology.

Our trip, focussed on Dongting – China’s second largest and most famous lake.  Today it covers a around 2,600 square kilometres but back in 1825 it was more than twice the size and was probably even larger 2,300 years ago when the poet Ch’u Yuan drowned himself in the lake in protest, it was said, about the way the poor were being treated by the then Emperor.  

The story goes that Ch’u Yuan, depressed and disappointed about the change in attitude of his friend (and possibly lover) the Emperor towards the poor of the region, decided to carry a heavy rock into Dongting  Lake and ritually drown himself in protest.  When the local people heard about what he had done they became upset and feared that his body would be eaten by the dragons or the evil spirits that inhabited the waters.   In an attempt to retrieve his body and save his mortal remains from such a horrible fate they dragged the lake and threw rice dumplings wrapped in silk into the water in order to distract the monsters whilst they searched.  Although his body was never found the event has continued to be celebrated every year for more than 2,300 years and can be seen all over the world wherever there are considerable populations of Chinese, such as in Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Sydney, in the form of dragon boat races.

Today, Ch’u Yuan might struggle to recognize the great Dongting Lake – it is less than half its original size, contaminated with agricultural and industrial runoff and is devoid of much of the wildlife that once graced this part of China and provided the inspiration for his poetry.  For example, it was once a place where the sleek, grey shape of the Yangtze River dolphin could be seen slicing through the shimmering water.  Sadly, today it is believed that the river dolphin has finally become extinct. Even so the huge expanse of shallow water and the marshes that surround Dongting Lake mean that it is still considered to be one of the world’s great wetlands.  This is because the shallow waters and swamps provide the perfect habitat for a whole range of fish, small mammals and insects which in turn attract great flocks of migrating birds as they head south to escape the harsh arctic winter.

Of all the winter visitors to Dongting the rarest and most graceful are the Siberian cranes.  This elegant bird is almost completely white apart from its black primary feathers and stands as tall as many of the adults who work in the fields around the lake margins.  Every winter an estimated 95% of the remaining world population of these beautiful birds fly south from Siberia to over winter around Dongting and x Lakes in central China.  

Note  – In 2012 the world population of Siberian Cranes was estimated to be just 3,200.  

These wading birds have quite exacting feeding requirements.  They typically hunt for fish, insects and small rodents at the edge of the lake where the water has to be a specific depth.  Unfortunately, the shrinking of Dongting Lake has also meant a shrinking of the habitat for these magnificent birds and this, along with indiscriminate hunting of cranes in Russia and Siberia, has caused the steep decline in their numbers over the last few decades.  In addition to the lake shrinking, every year there are fewer and fewer insects and small mammals for the birds to catch and eat as result of the increasing use of pesticides and the intensification of the agriculture around the lake.

If ever the Siberian Cranes were to stop visiting the Dongting or actually become extinct in the wild it would also mark the end of a part of China’s ancient cultural history too.  This is because the cranes are seen as vitally important to the immortals.  In Chinese mythology it is believed that immortal beings visit earth and live among the people manipulating fates and dispensing favours.  It is believed that for these demi-gods the only way to return to paradise after their earthly work is complete is on the back of a Siberian crane.  It is a powerful metaphor; if the cranes disappear from Dongting there will be no way back to paradise.

As part of the trip our group were permitted to interview farmers.  On one occasion we turned off a tarmac road and bumped down a small dirt track to a collective farm.  The poor farmer must have thought he was in some sort of trouble seeing not only local officials but also a group of Europeans step from the van and head purposely his way – he had never seen a foreigner before.  As with all the Chinese people we met he was polite and gracious and was soon in discussion via a translator with one of the World Bank consultants in our retinue.

The farm system on the areas of reclaimed land around Dongting Lake is one of intensive triple cropping.  At the time of year we were visiting the vast plain was a patchwork of muted browns and brilliant yellows as the first crop of the year, the oil seed rape, was close to harvest.  The farmer’s small holding was typical of the area – a mosaic of fields of yellow oil seed rape, fields of tilled dark brown soil (still ploughed using oxen) and shallow rectangular fish ponds where tilapia fish were fed on human and pig detritus.  

The man was old enough to remember the Cultural Revolution and had been a child on the same farm before Mao had come to power.   He was asked to turn over some soil so that the consultant could see what sort of worm activity there was.  After half a dozen attempts no worms were found.  He was asked about the local wildlife.  He said he remembered flocks of birds on the farm when he was a child but during the nineteen fifties they had gradually disappeared.  He was asked if he used fertilizers and pesticides on the farm to which he replied yes.  

“And when did he first use pesticides?”  Enquired the interviewer“ 

The nineteen fifties “ The farmer replied sadly.

On this particular day we were making good time and one of our hosts suggested that we might be able to see a group of Siberian Cranes that had been spotted close to the route we would be taking to our next hotel. We drove for a couple of hours and the weather closed in.  First we could see the milky skeins of heavy rain showers in the distance and then, as we journeyed on, a thick blanket of grey clouds clamped down over the land.  By the time we reached our next destination a cold, merciless, rain was tumbling out of the dark grey sky.  

The suggestion was that we scrambled up one of the highest dykes in the area and from the top we would be able to see where the cranes were feeding.  We headed up slipping and sliding on the large irregular boulders.  At the top there was a commanding view in all directions and a vista that shocked and surprised even our Chinese minders.  There were indeed a group of elegant snow white cranes wading through the shallow waters a few hundred meters away.  But rather than have a clear view of the birds the heavy rain just reduced their shapes to rough white smudges against the dark water in which they stood making the scene reminiscent of a classic Chinese water colour painting in a sort of dull, dark way.  However, it was the view in the opposite direction that was astonishing.

The dyke on the far side of the great river had been damaged in the flood and it was being repaired by thousands of prisoners in prison uniforms carrying large rocks to shore up the breeched dyke wall.  It was like a vision of oriental hell or a representation by Hieronymus Bosch of damnation.   Thousands of ant-like figures slowly swarmed over the scene in front of us shuffling along bent under the weight of the rocks they were carrying.  Stinging rain beat on their backs as they worked and the whole miserable scene was lit with a grey, diabolic twilight even though it was mid afternoon.

Our minders immediately tried to herd us away from the top of the dyke and back to the van but not before photographs had been taken, videos shot and the whole ghastly scene had been seared on to the memories of the group.  As we made our way back to the vehicle our hosts were barking unintelligible Mandarin words into their radios in what sounded like an urgent manner.

A gloomy silence descended over all of us as we were driven the last couple of hours to the comfortable hotel that had been arranged us to stay in that night.  As we entered the lobby our minders looked uneasy and there was a palpable tension in the air.  And then we saw the group of state policemen waiting for us.  We were moved to a meeting room and then there were protracted discussions between police, minders and ourselves.  In the end a compromise was reached.  We had to give up all photographs and video footage from the day and then we were finally released to head to our rooms.

In the room that night I lay down and spooled through the memories of the last few days.  I kept seeing the face of the woman standing with her baby in front of her devastated home.  She was thin and the skin was drawn tightly across her high cheek-boned face pulling her mouth in to something that almost looked like a smile but which was anything but.  He cheeks were rosy with the cold and she looked directly into our eyes in a way that few of the Chinese people that we had met on the trip had done.  And what do you say to a person who has lost her husband, her home and all her belongings?  I can remember just wanting to say something just to show that I was interested and cared. I remembered looking at her and then at her baby that had been born the day after the flood waters had breached the dyke and swept her previous life away.

“so what have you called you daughter?”  I said

“Lucky” she replied.