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Holistic Health (Past Programme Foci)
Where We Work: Sichuan / Chongqing

The Source of Rural Culture: The Story of River Management at an Ecological Village, Bolinwan

Villagers walking along Huaxi River to study the extent of pollution.
 
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Map of Huaxi River showing its geographical location.
Map of Huaxi River showing its geographical location.
Aerial view of Huaxi River.
Aerial view of Huaxi River.
Villagers walking along Huaxi River to study the extent of pollution.
Villagers walking along Huaxi River to study the extent of pollution.
Rainwater collected by a separate sewer system is used during the dry season.
Rainwater collected by a separate sewer system is used during the dry season.
Partial view of the wetland after restoration.
Partial view of the wetland after restoration.
The repaired pond is located at the very end of the wetland and is used to raise fish in an ecological manner.
The repaired pond is located at the very end of the wetland and is used to raise fish in an ecological manner.
A weir pond built at the wetland is used to raise fish while fruit trees are grown at the side of the pond.
A weir pond built at the wetland is used to raise fish while fruit trees are grown at the side of the pond.
The biological wastewater purifying and treatment system.
The biological wastewater purifying and treatment system.
A holistic approach to river management that takes into consideration human needs, nature and ecology, economy and environmental protection.
A holistic approach to river management that takes into consideration human culture, nature and ecology, economy and environmental protection.

Text and photos by Zhang Haoliang (Secretary-General of Daba Mountain Ecology and Poverty Issue Research Institute, Sichuan; Forestry Engineer)

Rivers: Source of Village History and Culture

Huaxi River flows through the mountainous area of northeast Sichuan. It collects and distributes the water that flows from Quijiang River and forms the nerve endings of the Yangtze River. The villagers of Bolinwan are nourished by the Huaxi and depend on it for their living, but they are also fearful of it because when it floods, people are killed and property destroyed. Consequently, they live in awe of the river. Their tradition of worshipping the river god and conserving the water that flows from it remains firm even with the passage of time. Villagers build houses, terraced fields, wetlands and temples near to the water. Their worship of Guanyin, Dragon God and God Erlang is a form of conservation as well as a spiritual belief. It is moreover the result of a simple, natural outlook on life. Because of this, in the villages 'everywhere is fragrant with pure water flowing'. In this way, a farming culture has developed over the last three centuries.

Rivers: The Lifeline of Rural Societies

Rivers and watercourses are the source of life and culture of rural villages, inseparable from rural society. They guarantee ecological security and provide villagers with their everyday needs. They ensure harvest no matter the weather is good or bad and are channels for passing on the wisdoms of the village ancestors.  However, following the gradual loss of traditional rural wisdoms as well as changes and uncertainties about land ownership leading to violent tremors, villagers had to leave the land upon which their ancestors had depended for a living. Farms are in ruins, rivers overflow and floods are followed by droughts. Moreover, the rural area is afflicted by chemical fertiliser and pesticide, and there is a siege of garbage and toxic waste. For a long, long time, villagers have felt powerless to do anything. The rivers and the waterways hold the tears of the villagers and the blood of the land. Bolinwan and the communities at the lower reach of Huaxi River have been in the state of little governance. 'Cancer villages' have emerged. The 'pot bottom effect' of mountain rivers (as water runs to lower ground, pollutants are collected and deposited in the lowland) is fermenting in a negative way. Moreover, modernisation has led to changes in production, lifestyle and values over the last two decades, together with problems accumulated in the field of agriculture, rural society and farmers, thus the watercourses are further faced with a grim future.

Since 2008, PCD has been supporting the community of Bolinwan to put into practice ideas of rural reconstruction that emphasise learning, reflection and action. Together with villagers and teachers and students of local schools, Daba Mountain Ecology and Poverty Issue Research Institute conducted a study of 12 streams and rivers. It was found that a total of 103 rural families and a population of 425 persons lived along these watercourses. There was also a factory that produces shale bricks. A total of 369 mu (approximately 246,123 square meters) of agricultural fields are irrigated by the watercourses.

The rivers have had levee failures and collapses that resulted in landslides threatening fields, properties and villagers' lives. The study found 36 perilous spots, including 15 collapses, six levee failures and 15 severe blockages, while two tributaries of Huaxi River are threatened by human and animal waste. The country has allocated special funds for irrigation works on major rivers, and a large amount of money has been put into these projects. However, there is no practical and stable policy to support public projects or social endeavors that have elements of local culture and traditional wisdom. As a consequence, there is now a large deficit in ecological security. It is difficult for local life to continue when the local government neglects to maintain, repair and develop it.

Rivers: The Source for Building Eco-villages

The rural communities, society and the public ask: “Where is the way out?” At the root of the question are human beings; our consciousness, needs and a return to the pursuit of traditional values. The survival of nature and of communities cannot be separated. Both depend on the conservation and use of local resources and sustainable development. People are rediscovering and recreating the ancient subject of 'water'. The building of eco-villages and happy homes has to start from issues of water resources, water environment, and water culture.

In 2008, the project organisation and the community started to explore ways to improve the water environment. This has been an arduous but fruitful process: from people’s organisational behaviour to self-improvement, from garbage management to reducing and controlling the use of chemical fertiliser and pesticide, from ecological restoration to creating the water environment. It has involved project activities such as enabling provision of tap water for everyday use at Bolinwan, providing water for farming, building wetland, managing rivers and training on aquaculture. Steady progress in these activities has helped to bring about the desired result.

Rivers: The Artery and Monitor of Ecological Health

The Bolinwan community adopted the five principles of voluntary participation, self-organisation, autonomous implementation, self-management and assuming responsibility for any risk, and seven community organisations were established. Tap water systems have subsequently been installed at eight locations. In accordance with local religious belief, landmark buildings for the protection of water sources (i.e. temples of Guanyin) have been repaired or newly built. They represent traditional cultural values and serve the purpose of protecting and venerating nature, as well as protecting water sources. A total of nearly 500 mu of wetland and wetland botanic gardens have been restored and built (including natural wetland, wetland on farms and wetland inhabited by human beings). Making use of the water resources of the wetland, the quality of the water that the villagers use has been improved. A connection has thereby been built between the economic life of the villagers and the management of rivers. The livelihood of the villagers and the sources of food are thus being improved, For example, the wetland purifying quality of the water has enabled 50 courtyard orchards to be planted to cultivate high quality fruits. A dozen local biological resources are being developed. The traditional wisdoms of farming culture is thus transmitted and local economy developed. In the process of building a local market in the community, fellow travellers searching for common values are identified. Because of this, two community Ecological Products Shows have been organised at Bolinwan to find customers for the ecological food products. The amount of transaction rose from RMB4,000 to RMB30,000. In the meantime, 24 ponds for ecological fish farming, covering a total area of nearly 50 mu, have been built. This is the real eye-catcher among the income-generating activities of the community. In 2013, the total value of production of the fishery was RMB50,000.

Furthermore, two 'sick ponds' (pools or weir ponds that have fallen into disrepair) have been mended. Their total area is 2,000m2 and they have a total water storage capacity of 7,000m3.  Drinking water cooperatives have also been organised. A sewer system that separates rainwater from wastewater has been built at six locations to purify and discharge domestic wastewater, while 300m of watercourse have been improved and over 5,000m of community drainage system have been dredged. A number of garbage dumping sites have been built and the problem of heedlessly throwing garbage anywhere and everywhere has been alleviated, improving the ecology of the watercourses and of farms as well as that of the living environment of the people. The community of Bolinwan has managed the watercourses successfully and effectively and has set an example in the management of community rivers. This example of management is actually a holistic model incorporating various elements  including human culture (the human values of respect for water and the nature), conservation of the ecology, utlilising water for economic development and also protecting the environment.

Because of the impact of its work, the community is now confident about the strategy of using local actions to bring about improvements in the quality of everyday life. Make the best use of every resource; take advantage of the attributes of a place; put one’s talent to good use; allow the river to follow its natural course; ensure that there is no obstacle to transportation; let ideas flow freely.  True to its name, Bolinwan has become 'the home of water'. The endless flow of the rivers is the historical source of rural culture.

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