We barely have time to jump off the train in Wuwei before being bundled into the care of director Zhang and his co-workers from the Wuwei Regional Water Bureau. During dinner director Zhang quickly comes to his present concern, the water level has fallen by more than three metres in the last 30 years. Less than 20 percent of the water in Minqin comes from melting snow and glaciers, the rest from harvested rain water in artificial reservoirs. Rivers that previously poured through the area are now completely empty of water all year round.
According to Zhang, water management has improved the situation. Three years ago, all who live in the area have to abide to strict water rationing. “Inside the city, each family can use 130 litres per day. If they use 30 percent more they have to pay twice as much,” says Dr. Zhang. “There is of course a major concern for the future,” he adds casting a glance round the table while finishing his glass of water.
Part of the reason we came here was to find a woman called Ye Yinxin. She was the only person left in her village; her family and neighbours had all fled as the desert began to surround them. Without money to escape and living on her own since 1998, Ye had no choice but to stay. In 2007 Ye Yinxin could see no way out, stating in Mark Lynas' book High tide, ‘Come back in five or ten years and I’ll still be here. There’s nowhere for me to go.’
We are collected devastatingly early next morning by Mr. Jang, director Zhang’s personal driver. On the way to the desert line we make a short stop at the Hongyashan reservoir, at 25 square kilometres it is the largest in Asia built in a desert area. “If it rained a lot they would put some water back into the rivers, but they remain dry these years. Channels that were built during Chairman Mao's time in the late 1950s ‘Great Leap Forward’ are used to provide farmers with water from the reservoir”, tells Jang. He continues to state that if nothing had been done to manage the water, more of this area would be desert. "No one would have enough water."
Life in the dryness rolls by outside the window, a constant stream of villages battling to survive in the arid landscape. In the blink of an eye the same style villages are suddenly lifeless and buried in sand, we have reached the desert line. As stark a contrast as a train coming out of a tunnel, from dark to light, within seconds the car windows are closed to stop blasting sand getting in.
Appearing out of the dunes lie buried memories of previous experiments to try to stop the desert from spreading further. Asphalt, small enclosures made of green mesh networks and straw have been attempted, but nothing seems to help in the long run. Asphalt did work quite well on some sand dunes, but nobody seriously considers turning the entire desert area of China into a parking lot. In Minqin there is also a special laboratory where they are trying to grow plants that can survive in desert areas. Despite all these attempts the desert creeps closer each year. More than 160 square kilometres of land have been lost since 1950 and during the same period the population of the area has doubled, from 860 000 to over two million people.
Jang pulls the car into a wreck of a village that looks slightly inhabited. The car becomes filled with nervous excitement. Knock. A policeman answers the door telling us that no one lives here permanently any more, the police rent the place as a look out base for officers, he knew nothing of Ye Yinxin. We make a short stop in another village before continuing. The sand is pouring and the visibility drops. A feeling of emptiness comes to pass, as if life ended here.
“This was previously Quintu lake. During the fifties there was water here reducing to wetlands in the following two decades”, Mr Jang continues his tour surprisingly cheery. A high dark red monument dropped alone in the vast desert landscape stops us. Erected two years ago when Premier Wen visited Minqin, his words remain emblazoned in gold letters, 'The key is to save water. Minqin will once again be prosperous.'
Five men on a motorcycles see us quizzing the lonely structure, they are from the nearest village beyond the desert border. Some of them will continue to Inner Mongolia to get cheep coal, others are at the former lake to collect desert onion. One of them is Mr. Pan. “Sandstorms have become much more frequent in recent years, the ones in spring can be deadly. If the water continues to decline, we’ll be forced to stop growing our best cash crop corn, it needs large amounts of water. We all hope that the water will rise in the future, we need it to,"he says interrupted by the increasing wind. The group quickly disbands as we jump into the car taking cover from the piercing grains of sand. We head back towards Wuwei.
It is harvest time in Minqin and the fields are full with men and women of all ages working feverishly picking cotton and harvesting their crops. Whole fields of chilli and corn are drying along the one main road through the district. In Minqin economic crops that require less water are mainly cultivated, but with the help of state grants people are investing in greenhouse cultivation. We stop at a cotton field to talk to a woman and her two boys. “We can’t afford to invest in greenhouses and can only water our fields four times per year, which is far from enough," says Mrs Wei from behind her cotton sack. Under the plants the family have laid plastic in an attempt to try preventing water evaporating. Mrs. Wei and her family live right next to the desert line and the abandoned village we just visited. “The last people moved two years ago, but I do not know where, a dozen families lived there before. They were lucky because the authorities gave them a little money to try plant trees to stop the desert." We leave Mrs. Wei and her two sons. All in the car are quiet till our interpreter Richard Lui breaks the silence, “A hard life some people live.”