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Changes in most uninhabitable area: understanding China's fight against poverty

(Xinhua)    10:28, December 11, 2020

-- Xihaigu was labeled the "most unfit place for human settlement" by the United Nations in the 1970s. Xihaigu's triumph over destitution, after reeling under poverty for centuries and carrying the tag of the most uninhabitable area on earth, offers a window into China's achievements in its war against poverty.

-- In Xihaigu, one collective memory is the lack of water. The average water resources per person in Xihaigu is only one 22th of the country's average.

-- The whole area of Xihaigu has bid farewell to extreme poverty, with all the nine counties and districts in the area delisted from the national poverty list. Xihaigu's current population is 2.4 million and all people live in places close to water diversion canals with easy access to water.

YINCHUAN, Dec. 10 (Xinhua) -- Xihaigu, an arid land in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, was one of the country's most impoverished areas until recent years.

Now the whole area has bid farewell to extreme poverty, with all the nine counties and districts in the area delisted from the national poverty list.

In this combo aerial photo taken on Sept. 8, 2018, the upper part shows a view of a revegetated area where former residents were relocated to another settlement; the lower part shows a newly built settlement for relocated villagers, both in Hongsipu District of Wuzhong City, northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. (Xinhua/Wang Peng)

Xihaigu's triumph over destitution, after reeling under poverty for centuries and carrying the tag of the most uninhabitable area on earth, offers a window into China's achievements in its war against poverty.

Xihaigu was labeled the "most unfit place for human settlement" by the United Nations in the 1970s due to land reclamation, drought and fragile ecological environments. But, through the government and people's relentless efforts, the region has shaken off all such tags.

In the 1980s, when China implemented its first large-scale program for development-oriented poverty relief in the northwestern regions, Xihaigu was included.

Since then, technology, fundings, professional personnel and consistent policy supports have helped sustained development in the region.

Pooling their wisdom, people in Xihaigu and aid workers succeeded in realizing both social development and ecological rehabilitation.

MOVING OUT AND DIVERTING IN

Less than 30 years ago, people in Xihaigu barely had enough to eat and the spell of poverty marred the region.

Xihaigu's population grew rapidly between 1953 and 1995. Its population density was thrice the maximum carrying capacity of dry land as defined by the United Nations, official data showed.

Thus, the discrepancy in natural resources and population called for bold efforts to redress the balance.

Ningxia launched six large-scale relocation projects, moving some 1.23 million people from Xihaigu to more habitable areas, areas closer to irrigation canals.

Nationwide, resettlement has helped poor people build new homes, find jobs, and forge a better future for their children.

In Xihaigu, one collective memory is the lack of water. As a local poet once wrote: "When cutting a grain of sand in half in Xihaigu, one half groans with thirst and the other moans in hunger."

To eradicate poverty, finding stable water sources for drinking and irrigation is a must.

Official data shows the average water resources per person in Xihaigu is only one 22th of the country's average. Many village names carry people's wishes for more water, such as Hanjiaoshui Village, meaning "crying for water" in Chinese.

Since the 1970s, a series of water diversion projects have been rolled out in the region, channeling water from the Yellow River and its tributary Jinghe River to Xihaigu.

By the end of 2019, almost all rural households in Xihaigu had access to potable water. Cisterns, water buckets, and water-carrying donkeys were no longer household necessities.

Xihaigu's current population is 2.4 million and all people live in habitable places with easy access to water.

Photo taken on Dec. 27, 2009 shows the water duct of an irrigation project for poverty alleviation purpose in Hongsipu District of Wuzhong City, northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. (Xinhua/Wang Peng)

PAIRING-UP BRINGS INDUSTRIES

Xihaigu has taken up vegetable cultivation and developed a wine industry thanks to the availability of water.

More than 6,667 hectares of grapes have been planted in the Hongsipu District, yielding a fortune for 230,000 people in Xihaigu.

Zheng Yongjin, a businessman from east China's Fujian Province, built the first winery in Hongsipu in 2002. His winery currently purchases more than 2,000 tonnes of grapes a year from local farmers, while he also runs a vineyard of his own.

"Over the years, I have paid local laborers more than 80 million yuan (about 12 million U.S. dollars), and I'm happy to see their lives getting better and better," Zheng said.

Photo taken on Sept. 14, 2018 shows grapes for winery use at a plantation in Hongsipu District of Wuzhong City, northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. (Xinhua/Wang Peng)

Under China's pairing-up support scheme, affluent areas are tasked with the job to help less developed ones and the coastal province of Fujian has paired up with Ningxia. Entrepreneurs and professionals from Fujian have brought in various technologies to kick off special agricultural programs in a bid to eliminate poverty.

Lin Zhanxi led his team to Pengyang County in Xihaigu in 1996. As the inventor of the Juncao technology, he brought with him six boxes of the grass seeds.

Lin taught local farmers how to cultivate mushrooms using the Juncao grass substrate in mountain caves of Pengyang. He later explored curbing desertification in Xihaigu by persuading farmers to feed the grass to cattle and sheep to replace grazing.

Qi Dengrong, a resident of Pengyang, is now in charge of a county-level mushroom agriculture park. This year, it grouped more than 40 local farmers to grow mushrooms, generating a daily output of up to 4 tonnes of fresh mushrooms.

"Without the guidance from Fujian experts, we wouldn't have had this industry here at all," Qi said.

Over the past 24 years, Fujian offered more than 3 billion yuan in financial aid to help build infrastructure in Ningxia, including water conservancy, soil conservation, rural power grids, housing, roads, radio and television network, benefiting nearly 600,000 poor people.

Fujian has also helped build 10 industrial parks in Ningxia in cooperation with the regional government of Ningxia. About 5,700 Fujian-invested enterprises have been established in Ningxia, most of which are located in Xihaigu.

MICROFINANCING INSPIRES FARMERS

For years, poor people in Xihaigu had little to mortgage for loans. Thirteen years ago, 80 percent of villagers of Caichuan lived in caves carved out of the mountainside.

"Though they are good at raising cattle and sheep, and have land to grow corns and forage grass, many villagers had no money to buy calves, build bullpens or silage pools. There were only 170 cattle in the village in 2007 that were for farming," said Ma Jinguo, then director of the village committee.

The Ningxia branch of the Postal Savings Bank of China began a loan scheme on a trial run in 2008 and Caichuan was chosen as a pilot area.

"Each loan applicant was paired up with two other families, who were financially sound or were village cadres, as the applicant's guarantors. Initially, only 14 families applied and each family was granted 5,000 to 20,000 yuan for a credit period of one year," Ma said.

Yang Zongren, 36, was one of the first to receive the loan. He bought two cows with the money and earned 3,000 yuan after paying back the debt the next year.

"I have had good returns from breeding the cows, and life has eased up," he said.

Seeing the results of the pilot scheme, other villagers showed a willingness to join the program. As the number of loan applicants grew, a cattle-raising cooperative was established, which used a communal fund to offset risks of default, and supported farmers to raise cows by helping with the selection of cow breeds, husbandry techniques and sales.

Villager Ma Guocai (R) and his wife Ma Ting feed cows at a cow-raising cooperative in Hantianling Village of Hexi Township, Tongxin County, Wuzhong City of northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Dec. 21, 2017. (Xinhua/Wang Peng)

Caichuan is no longer poverty-stricken. This year, villagers were given loans worth 26 million yuan. They raised 5,500 cattle and 12,000 sheep, and their per-capita annual disposable income increased to 12,000 yuan from 2,000 yuan in 2008.

It is a consensus among Caichuan dwellers to maintain creditworthiness, as the bank has a three-level individual rating -- A, B and C. A whopping 80 percent of the villagers have earned A rating, and there was not a single bad loan over the years.

The microfinance program has been rolled out in other regions across Ningxia. From 2016 to 2019, the annual growth of poverty-relief micro-financing came in at 3 billion yuan every year.

"The loan scheme empowered poor farmers, encouraged them to work, and also helped build an industrial chain. We hope our experience can be of some value to other poor areas that are striving to eradicate poverty," said Fang Zhenglun, director of Yuanzhou District, Guyuan City. 

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(Web editor: Zhang Wenjie, Liang Jun)

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