China's farmers see hope in effort to stem soil erosion caused by Three Gorges Dam

A project inserting terraces and drainage has boosted production where soil has been severely eroded along the flood-prone Yangtze River, offering a possible solution to the bigger problem of China's Three Gorges.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Peng Zongying stands near terraces, part of the Yangtze River watershed rehabilitation project.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

As Chinese officials set about trying to repair the environmental damage that the Three Gorges Dam has caused around the reservoir's edge, a simple but effective project just downstream could model a solution to the mammoth problem.

By merely building sturdy terraces and digging well-placed drainage channels and ponds, hydraulic engineers have radically reduced soil erosion and water loss in this village and others like it, boosting farmers' crops and helping them make more money.

"My corn did not grow so well when my land sloped," recalls Liu Gang, surveying his newly built terraces, green with leafy cornstalks. "Now [since the terraces] I harvest almost half again as much as I used to."

The farm terraces and ponds that dot Yiling County, where the Three Gorges Dam is located, are part of an effort funded by the World Bank, the European Union, and the Chinese government stretching up and down the Yangtze River to better manage its watershed.

Soil and water loss plague farmers in many parts of China, but in few places is the problem as critical as it is around the Three Gorges Reservoir, behind the dam.

Peasant farmers forced by the reservoir's rising waters to cultivate steep slopes farther up the mountainside have worsened erosion, sending millions of tons of soil coursing down the mountains every year when it rains. The resulting silt raises the level of the Yangtze riverbed, not only reducing the life of the dam, but also worsening the risk of floods.

The water that runs off the hillsides, meanwhile, also increases peak river flows, eroding the banks and raising the risk of landslides. And more soil in the river means less on the land, which means poorer farmers.

The Chinese government pledged recently to solve the Three Gorges project's environmental problems and to make resettled farmers more prosperous, even if they now have less land.

In Yiling, where soil erosion led to diminished crops for years, according to Wang Junhua, head of the county's soil and water conservation bureau, terracing the land has turned the situation around: "When it rains, the channels help with drainage, and during droughts water is stored in the pools."

In some parts of the county, terracing and crop changes have cut soil erosion by more than 40 percent, according to Piet van der Poel, with the EU project.

Mr. Wang's team encourages farmers to grow fruit trees as well as more traditional crops such as corn on their terraces to improve the retention of soil and water. Though farmers have to do some of the terracing work themselves, Wang says, "We show them how much they'll have to invest and how much they will earn, and they realize that it is worth it."

That worked for Chen Xianrui, an orange farmer in the nearby village of Huang Hua Chang, who says most of his crop was juiceless when his trees were planted on a slope where rainwater ran off quickly. "I couldn't sell most of my harvest for a penny," he says.

Today he sells all his oranges, and he has used the extra money he makes to build a new house and send his twin teenage daughters to college. "Life was difficult before," he says. "Now it's OK."

It's working for Mr. Liu, too, even in the middle of the worst drought the region has suffered in 60 years. His corn is high – irrigated with water stored in drainage pools – and the walnut saplings he planted last year have survived. He has invested some of the income from his increased crops in a small pig farm.

"In the old days, when there was a drought, I'd have to go out to find work" as a migrant laborer, he recalls. "Now I'm too busy."

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