Science - April 6, 2006

Internship / Back in China

After four years of studying in the Netherlands, master’s student Zhang Cheng returned to his home country China to do his internship for International Land and Water Management. He did research for a Chinese water project on the impact of planned water works, one of the biggest of its kind in China.

‘As is customary in China, I lived with my parents in Beijing, a huge city in the north with fifteen million inhabitants. The area there is dry, and water is scarce. As a result of the huge economic growth the big cities are running short of drinking water. The Chinese government has therefore designed one of the biggest water diversion systems in the history of China.
‘Three big canals will be dug from the Yangtze River in the south running 1400 km northwards to bring water to the cities there. In the south the Yangtze River is often swollen and frequently bursts its banks. The middle canal, where I did my research, will siphon off four hundred cubic metres of water a second, almost twice as much as flows along the River Maas in the Netherlands.

‘I did my internship research for the administrative office of the South to North Water Diversion Project in Beijing, which developed the plan and is now coordinating the construction. In the rural areas of Hebei province I looked at the impact that building this canal will have on the local communities. Because I am originally from the countryside I loved the peace and quiet compared with the bustle of Beijing. I found travelling through the countryside very interesting. You spend hours, sometimes days in the train and see all kinds of landscapes pass by.
‘Hebei province is very important as it is one of the most productive agricultural areas of China. In the local communities I spoke with people about how they should be compensated for loss of land and irrigation infrastructure as a result of the canal being built. Like so many farmers, the people were often naive and only interested in securing their own livelihood. I also spoke a lot with agricultural cooperative leaders and mayors.

‘What I liked was that, contrary to what a lot of foreigners think about China, the communication on this project was really two-way. Partly due to my work, the plans were not just implemented from above, but people also looked at whether their policies would work at the local level. Round-table discussions like you get in the Netherlands would not be possible in China, if only because of the huge numbers that would be involved in a country of 1.4 billion people. What moved me the most was that this was the first time I have really been able to do something for my country, and got to work on such a prestigious water project.’

Martijn Vink