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International Journal of Water Resources Development


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Rainwater harvesting and poverty alleviation: a case study in Gansu, China


Zhu Qiang
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China Gansu Research Institute for Water Conservancy, Room 1602, No. 53, Dong Qing Xiang, Hangzhou, 310003, China. Email: zhuqhz@sina.com Published online: 03 Jun 2010.

To cite this article: Zhu Qiang (2003) Rainwater harvesting and poverty alleviation: a case study in Gansu, China, International Journal of Water Resources Development, 19:4, 569-578, DOI: 10.1080/0790062032000161373 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0790062032000161373

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Water Resources Development, Vol. 19, No. 4, 569578, December 2003

Rainwater Harvesting and Poverty Alleviation: A Case Study in Gansu, China

ZHU QIANG
China Gansu Research Institute for Water Conservancy, Room 1602, No. 53, Dong Qing Xiang, Hangzhou, 310003, China. Email: zhuqhz@sina.com

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ABSTRACT China faces great challenges to alleviate poverty as it enters the new century. There are still 30 million people living below the absolute poverty line. They are concentrated in the mountainous areas of western China, of which the loess area of Gansu province is one of the driest and poorest. One of the root causes of poverty is water scarcity. Water is the key factor in changing the fundamental conditions for the existence and development of the poor areas. Due to the topographical nature of the area, a major water delivery project would be difcult to build and be economically unfeasible. The most easy-to-use water source with the highest potential is rainwater. Rainwater harvesting (RWH) has been carried out in previous decades and it has been shown that it can serve the poor by supplying water for domestic use and supplemental irrigation, thus ensuring both water and food security. It can create a pre-condition for the modication of agricultural structure, thus promoting income generation. RWH is also benecial to the recovery of the ecosystem and environmental conservation in the semi-arid northwest region of China. Past experiences show that RWH is an innovative approach for the integrated and sustainable development of the poor areas. It is reasonable to mainstream RWH in integrated water resources management.

Introduction Great achievements have been made in the alleviation of poverty in China in the past 22 years. People suffering poverty have been reduced from 250 million, 30.7% of the total population, in 1978 to 30 million, about 3% of the total, in 2000 with a reduction rate of 10 million people each year. However, as it enters the 21st century, China still faces serious challenges of poverty alleviation. First, although the poverty percentage has been greatly reduced in the past decades, the absolute number of the remaining impoverished population is still large. Second, the natural constraints in the area still suffering poverty are very severe and to eradicate poverty further from this level in the future will be a very difcult task. Third, in the past, the standard of the poverty alleviation, indicated by net income per capita, was set at a relatively low level, which could only meet the basic needs of food and clothing for human existence. The fundamental conditions to enhance agricultural production and to make further developments in those areas that need extricating from poverty have not yet been created. Once natural disasters have occurred, people have low resilience to such
0790-0627 Print/1360-0648 On-line/03/04056910 2003 Taylor & Francis Ltd DOI: 10.1080/0790062032000161373

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disasters, as a result of which they could slide backwards to poverty again. To consolidate the results of poverty eradication already gained in the past by improving the basic needs for human existence and development is also a big challenge. The most important marks of poverty in China are water and food insecurity, low income, land degradation and the deteriorating environment. The impoverished areas are mainly concentrated in western China. Specically, they are located in the loess plateau in the northwest, the Karst hilly regions and the Hengduanshan Range areas in the southwest and the Qinling-Bashan mountainous areas in the middle west, among which the loess area of Gansu province is one of the driest and poorest. The loess area of Gansu province is located in the middle and eastern part of the province, with an area of about 150 000 km2. It comprises a plateau with an altitude of more than 1800 m above sea level and is criss-crossed by ravines and gullies. The annual precipitation in the area is about 330 mm while the potential evaporation reaches 15002000 mm. The water resources per capita are only 230 m3. For generations, millions of the local people have had no reliable water supply for their household use. Methods of water collection are both time and labour intensive, and it is often women and children who fetch water from long distances, and in most cases the water is of poor quality. In the dry years even these sources have dried up, then the villagers could only wait for the trucks sent by the government to bring them water from tens, even hundreds, of kilometres away. Agricultural production has relied entirely on the natural rainfall, which, however, is often not reliable due to its unfavourable distribution. Drought occurs frequently. According to the statistics for the area, 36 droughts have occurred in the past 40 years. People have had to rely on relief from the local government for both food and water. Water shortages also brought about the mono-structure of agriculture: more than 90% of agricultural land is cultivated with grain crops. The impoverished population has little chance in the market economy. Most of the population in the province have a daily net income below US$0.5. Low productivity of the land has forced farmers to reclaim as much land as possible, even on the steep slopes, despite the very low yield, which sometimes cannot even compensate the cost of the seeds. Excessive reclamation has caused serious soil erosion and land degradation. Uprooting of the vegetation for fuel use has further worsened the environment. The erosion module in the area is as high as 10 000 t/km2/a. It is true that poverty is always coupled with environmental deterioration. When people are suffering from thirst and hunger, less care is given to the protection of their surroundings. This is a vicious circle: the poorer they become, the more they use their limited natural resources, the poorer they become. It can be seen that water scarcity is the root cause of poverty and to make water available is the key factor for poverty alleviation as well as for environmental conservation (see Figure 1). Different Ways of Water Management for Poverty Alleviation In the past 50 years, numerous efforts have been made aimed at changing the basic situation in this area. Many people failed to nd a way out of the inverse situation because the natural conditions in the area are very severe. There is almost no river ow in the dry spell and/or the water quality is not suitable for drinking or for irrigation at all. The groundwater aquifer lies hundreds of metres deep below the surface and is of bad quality. It is impossible to use the surface

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Figure 1. Flow chart of vicious circle of water, land and environment. and groundwater from local sources. People have thought of diverting water from the neighbouring river basin. Due to the high mountain and steep valley, the long distance and big difference in levels between land and river, the cost of water conveyance structures is very high and they would be very difcult to build. There is a plan to deliver water from the neighbouring Taohe River Basin for irrigation of this area. The scheme is hundreds of kilometres in length, including many tunnels and water bridges. According to the design, the initial cost per hectare of irrigated land will be as high as US$15 000. Even if the government could provide the funds for construction, the water users would be unable to afford the high operation and maintenance (O&M) fees. In addition, there could also be many environmental issues associated with the construction of such a large project. For instance, the loess soil, characterized by wet subsidence in the area of the project, might sink seriously due to too much water brought to the land after a long-term irrigation operation. Furthermore, the decentralized local inhabitants scattered in the remote and mountainous areas would have difculty obtaining access to any specic water delivery project. The most easy-to-use water source with the highest potential is rainwater, and it is available everywhere. The local people have a long tradition of managing rainwater. This includes the conventional measures of dry farming, such as adopting cultivation methods such as deep ploughing, tillage and harrowing to keep the rain in the soil, breeding new crop varieties to adapt to the local rain conditions, establishing mini-catchment areas to concentrate the run-off to the cropping areas, etc. The soil and water conservation scheme carried out on a very large scale in the area is also a method of rainwater utilization. Terracing,

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Figure 2. Annual distribution of rainfall and crop water demand. contour planting and the building of sh-scale pits help to retain the runoff in the eld and reduce soil erosion. The main aim of these measures is to keep as much rain in the soil as possible and to make best use of the moisture in the soil. The efforts have proved to have good results in a normal year. However, in the dry years they are not so effective. Particularly during the recurrent droughts that occurred in the 1990s, maybe as a result of the global climate change, the crop yield dropped so low that the food supply was in question. The reason is that the temporal gap between the crop water demand and the effective rain is so big that the water stored in the soil porosity is far from enough to mitigate the drought. Figure 2 shows a history of the typical curved pattern of annual rainfall and crop water demand in the area. It can be seen that the gap can last for half a year, from October to the following June and even longer during the drier year. In times of serious water stress, the crops are subject to severe damage or can wither and cannot recover in the later arrival of the rainy season. The annual rainfall in the area is approximately 400 mm, about the same amount of crop water demand in one cropping season. However, 70% of the rain is concentrated in the period of July to September while in May to early June, when crops need water most, the rainfall is only 1924%. It can be seen that drought is much more correlated to the rainfall distribution than to the annual amount. In many cases, the date of the rst effective rain occurring in the year is very meaningful to the harvest. The late arrival of the rst effective rain in the year means a severe drought will occur. So, nding a better way to manage the rainwater becomes key factor in the solution. Thanks to the rainwater catchment and utilization project (rainwater harvesting, RWH) carried out since 1988, a new approach has been demonstrated and replicated in the area to manage rainwater. The innovative idea is to collect and store rainwater using structural measures and to regulate and utilize it in a most efcient way. By adopting RWH, people start to change from passively relying on the natural rainfall to actively regulating and using the rain to meet the human needs. This is a revolution in the relationship between mankind and nature and also a breakthrough in the traditional dry farming practices, representing a new stage for mankind in the history of rainwater utilization. Tables

Rainwater Harvesting and Poverty Alleviation Table 1. Comparison between rainwater harvesting and a large-scale project
Rainwater harvesting Decentralized, suitable for the mountains and scattered inhabitants On-the-spot water resource utilization, reliable and selfsustained Low cost, almost no O&M fees and affordable by the farmers Adoption of appropriate technology acceptable by the farmers Household ownership, facilitating participation of farmers and community in project implementation To be sustainable in O&M due to ownership, economic reasons Water supply close to the household and is convenient for collecting water Conservation of water and energy resources Relatively low quota of water supply, use water in highly efcient way, water-saving technique needed Large-scale project Concentrated, unsuitable for the mountains and scattered inhabitants Long distance diversion of water, water supply would fail if the supply line broke High expenditure, high O&M fees unaffordable by the farmers Complicated technology difcult to be accepted by the farmers State ownership, project is often implemented without participation of farmers and community Sometimes difcult to be sustainable in operation Water supply can only be at certain points, taking time and labour for water fetching High consumption of water and energy resources Higher quota of water supply, luxurious water consumption

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1 and 2 show the comparison between the large water delivery project, the traditional rainwater utilization and the rainwater harvesting. The RWH system is usually composed of four components, namely, the rainwater collection ground, storage tanks, the water supply and irrigation equipment, as well as the agriculture facility. In Gansu, due to the low rainfall and the dry soil surface, the rainwater collection efciency (RCE) on the natural slopes is very low. According to testing, it is only 0.08. To raise the RCE, the less permeable surfaces have to be used for rainwater collection. The tiled (cement or clay tile) roofs and concrete courtyards are used as collection grounds for domestic water use in the RWH system to ensure the quality. The paved highways, country roads, threshing yards, sports grounds, compacted soil surface, etc are used as catchments for irrigation purpose. Sometimes, specic grounds lined with concrete or covered with plastic lm are set up to raise the RCE. The most popular type of storage is a water cellar, a buried underground bottle-shaped tank, with a capacity of 2070 m3. The advantages of this kind of tank are being able to keep a low temperature of the stored water to retain its good quality and to avoid evaporation loss. Another benet is that the underground water cellar can be built with less construction materials. To reduce the silt and sand content in the water, a sediment basin is built before the inlet of the tank. The water supply for household use is often via a hand pump

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Rainwater harvesting Uses less permeable surface and/or articially built catchment to collect rainwater, high collection efciency Storage of rainwater in tank with large storage capacity and less loss High regulation capacity of the rain, actively controlling rain to meet the human demand, higher reliability High efciency in rainwater utilization Traditional rainwater utilization Uses natural soil surface as catchment to collect rainwater, low collection efciency Storage of rainwater in the soil, storage capacity low and easy to lose moisture from soil Less regulation capacity of the rain, passively waiting for rain feeding, lower reliability Low efciency in rainwater utilization

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installed on the tank, which is located close to the house. Simple methods, mostly manual, that have high water application efciency are used for irrigation. Sometimes, when the farmers can obtain loans, they also use the modern drip or mini-sprinkler system for high-value cash crops. To make the most protable use of rainwater, farmers build RWH facilities together with greenhouses, the roofs of which also act as an efcient catchment. How RWH Serves the Poor With the RWH system people in the area get a clean and reliable water supply for their basic needs almost free of charge. From 1995 to 1996, the 121 rainwater catchment project, supported by the Gansu Provincial Government and social grants, was successfully implemented in the area, solving the drinking water problem for 1.2 million people. The project name 121 means that each household in the area can get a grant of about US$50 to build one rainwater collection ground, two tanks, one of which is for domestic water use and another is for the courtyard and to prepare one piece of land to grow vegetables or other cash crops or to plant fruit trees. The household-based RWH systems avoid long distance water fetching and each year save an average of about 70 labour-days for a ve-member family. There are some quality issues in the stored water. The number of colon bacillus and bacteria are found to be much higher than the upper limit set by the National Standard. In addition, in the newly-built cement tank the water has a high pH value in the rst year of operation. But these problems can be treated in simple and easy ways. Farmers are advised to store the rst ush in the irrigation tank but not in the tank for domestic use, to let water pass the ltering facility before using the water and to boil the water before drinking. To avoid too much damage to the vegetation, a simple solar heater with low cost (about US$15) is recommended to the farmers. Compared to the situation before the project, tremendous changes have occurred to both water quantity

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and quality. People are happy with the household RWH system. Now there is no more suffering from thirst. The dirty, bitter and remote water in the past has changed to clean, fresh water close at hand. After successfully implementing the 121 project, the RWH and irrigation project has been followed up since 1996 and much has been achieved. By the end of 2000, about 230 000 hm2 of land had two or three supplemental water applications in one cropping season from the RWH systems. The supplemental water is only supplied in the critical periods of crop growth using highly efcient but simple and affordable methods. Although the extra amount of water is very limited, only occupying 1520% of the total crop water consumption, its role is signicant. It can help the crops over the period of severe lack of water and avoid fatal damage so that the rainfall in the rainy season afterwards will be effective and efcient to the harvest. With the water supply by the RWH system, the crop yield was higher and more stable even in the dry years, thus ensuring the security of food. According to the test results in the experiment and demonstration sites, crop yield can increase by 2080%, with an average of 40%. The water supply efciency (WSE, equal to the increase in crop yield or economic value for each m3 of irrigation water supply) reaches 26 kg of grain/m3 in the eld and $6/m3 in a greenhouse for growing vegetables. These gures are much higher than those for conventional irrigation. With water, people can produce cash crops according to the market needs. Before the RWH project, farmers in the areas with extremely dry weather could not grow vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, peppers, etc. Particularly in most of the areas where the altitude is above 2000 m above sea level, the vegetables have to be grown in greenhouses to avoid frost damage. In this scenario the crops need a good water supply, which was not available before the RWH Irrigation project. Now, with water in the tanks, many scientic farmers have built numerous greenhouses and gained enviable prots in these pilot agriculture facilities. Usually the expenditure of installing an RWH system and a greenhouse can be recouped within 1 to 2 years. On a former dry and waste hilltop in the Dingxi County, a typical poor area and also one of the poorest and driest counties in the state, a highly efcient agricultural market garden has been set up, with an area of 3 km2 for producing protable crops. The only water source for the garden is from the RWH system. In numerous greenhouses run by private enterprises, vegetables, owers, herbs, edible fungus, etc are grown and all have been in great demand in the market. RWH has been proved to be able to create the pre-conditions for the structural modication of agricultural production and is a powerful tool for generating household income. The farmers have sayings such as: Water equals grain, water equals money, To be rich, build a cellar in your eld. When people feel secure with their water and food supply, they start thinking of the efciency in using their own labour force. Stimulated by the favourable government policy on environmental conservation in the Great West Development, a strategy issued by the state, some of the people in these areas consciously changed from cultivating the sloping land to planting trees and grasslands instead. Another result of the change in water conditions is that a new upsurge in animal husbandry is in the making. Many farmers have already found that raising animals is a more protable choice than producing

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grains, but before the RWH project they could not afford water for the animals. To meet the demand of feeds, grass planting has become a new business for many local farmers, which is also benecial for improving the coverage of vegetation. According to the statistics, in 2001 about 48 000 hm2 of sloping land was converted from growing grain crops to the development of an ecosystem, among which 42 000 hm2 of land was planted with trees and 5800 hm2 planted with grass. Another 26 400 hm2 of wasted hillsides was planted with trees. Therefore, RWH has opened up a method of rebuilding the ecological and environmental system in the semi-arid areas in the northwest China. It veries further that the environmental issue has to be solved together with the poverty issue and vice versa. RWH has proved to be suitable not only for the semi-arid areas with an annual precipitation ranging between 250 and 550 mm like in the Gansu province, but also for the sub-humid and humid mountainous areas that have a serious seasonal water shortage. For example, in Guangxi Autonomous Region and Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou provinces in southwest China, although the annual precipitation amounts to more than 1000 mm, in the long dry spell caused by the monsoon climate, both people and crops suffered from the drought. RWH has also played an important role in solving the domestic water shortage problem for the most impoverished people and has provided supplemental irrigation for enhanced agricultural production, thus promoting poverty alleviation and income generation. According to the government statistics in China, RWH is implemented mainly in 13 provinces (regions), mostly in the poor, remote and mountainous areas in the west, an area of about 2 million km2 with a population of 260 million people, representing about one-fth of China. In these areas, it is estimated that RWH has helped more than 30 million people to obtain a relatively stable water supplyenjoying an adequate domestic water supply and having stored water for supplemental irrigation of their land. The experiences of RWH in China have proved that combined with the conventional dry farming measures, RWH is an innovative approach to water resources management for poverty alleviation, social and economic development and environmental conservation. RWH is a decentralized solution using indigenous resources and adopting the appropriate technology. Due to the low initial expenditure and O&M fees and the simple techniques as well as the household ownership of the system, it facilitates and stimulates the participation of the rural community and farmers, especially of the poor people. Unlike the large water resources projects that are often associated with environmental problems, RWH as a small-sized project with no negative impact on the environment can be said to be environmentally friendly. RWH is a new pattern of integrated and sustainable development in the areas. Conclusions From the above case study, we should think about how water, the essential natural resource of mankind, can really contribute to poverty alleviation. In China, the impoverished populations are living in the remote areas in very scattered communities with a mountainous topography and serious water shortages (either on an annual or seasonal basis). Most of the agriculture relies on rainfall. In the 592 key counties where poverty alleviation is supported by the

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central government, 366 are located in western China, and 70% of these counties are in the mountainous areas. In these areas, as shown in the case of Gansu, people have great difculty getting access to a safe water supply, either for domestic or agricultural use through the concentrated water supply system. Due to the natural and economic conditions, they rarely enjoy the modern water resources infrastructure. For a long time, the water agencies have emphasized the exploitation of the surface and subsurface water but have given little attention to helping people (mostly the impoverished populations) use rainwater. They generously invested huge funds in the big projects despite the great environmental impact, but were reluctant to subsidize the poor for small-sized projects like the RWH system. In scientic and technical terms, the denition for water resources is taken as river runoff plus groundwater but excludes the precipitation. This in fact becomes a theoretical base of an unreasonable method of water management. When integrated water resources management (IWRM) is talked about it only means two types of water, surface and subsurface. Based on this biased perspective, people living in the mountainous area with little or no surface and subsurface water were then forgotten. It is time to stop this unreasonable and unfair policy. The real IWRM should be an integrated management of four sources of water, namely, rainwater, surface runoff, soil water and groundwater. It is well known that the total of runoff and groundwater only occupies a small part of rainfall, the original source of all types of water. The ratio of river runoff plus groundwater to rain is 40% in the world, 44% in China, 21% in the semi-arid areas of north and northwest China and only 810% in the loess plateau of the middle Gansu, one of the driest areas in China. It can be seen that the drier the area, the less proportion of runoff is produced. With many parts of the world facing serious water shortages and water being highly valuable for those still suffering from poverty, there are no reasons to neglect rainfall, the spring of life. Rainwater has to be recognized as one of the main sources of water. Rainwater harvesting must become a mainstream water resource and be given an equal part in all water exploitation. RWH must be adopted to serve the poor.

Bibliography
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Selection of papers on rainwater utilization in China, pp. 196201 (Xuzhou, China, China Mining University Press) (in Chinese). Zhu Qiang & Li Yuanhong (2000) Rainwater harvesting for survival and development: a revolution in dryland farming in Gansu China, Waterlines, 18(3), January, pp. 1114. Zhu Qiang & Li Yuanhong (2001) Effects of rainwater harvesting on the regional development and environmental conservation in the dry mountainous areas: Taking the loess area in Gansu as a case study, Proceedings of the National Symposium and International Workshop on Rainwater Utilization, pp. 327333, Lanzhou.

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