Thayer Watkins

The Control of
the Huai River System in China

Pictures in the 1950s of hundreds of thousands of Chinese peasants building dams with little more than their bare hands captured the attention and imagination of people the world over. Some people were merely awed by the audacity of the undertaking, but others saw it as a triumph of political mobilization over seemingly overwhelming obstacles. It seemed that perhaps bourgeoise economics had somehow been proven invalid or, at least, irrelevant. But a review of the heroic effort to control the Huai River indicates that although there were substantial accomplishments there were tragic failures and waste of the scarce resoures of the Chinese people.

The three major problems faced by agriculture in China are:

In southern China in the Yangtse River Basin rainfall is heavy and more or less evenly distributed among the seasons, but to the north in the Huai and Yellow River Basins the annual rainfall tapers off to the minimum required for agriculture and even that is concentrated in the summer. Thus, in the north agriculture requires irrigation in the dry sea sons and flood control in the wet season.

Long ago the trees were cut from the hillsides of China. Without trees on the slopes to hold back the runoff, water quickly washes soil into the low places and river beds. The Yellow River typically carries about 60 pounds of sediment per cubic yard whereas the Nile carries only two pounds3 After generations of peasants building dikes to keep ahead of the silt, the river beds of China are often yards above the adjoining fields. This condition makes difficult the drainage of water-logged fields and the repair of breaks in the levees .

The sedimentation of the river beds also makes the river channels quite unstable. The Yellow River has changed its course 26 times in recorded history and nine of these changes were major. In the twelfth century its course shifted south into the Huai River Basin and then shifted back north leaving the Huai River Basin in shambles. The Huai River deprlved at that time of its outlet to the sea flowed into the Yangtse River Basin to the south. Because of this and other factors the Huai River has been especially troublesome to China. In the past two thousand years the Huai River has caused almost one thousand floods, and since the rupture of the levees in 1938 flooding has been an annual occurrence along the Huai River.

In the spring of 1950, shortly after the victory of the Communists over the Nationalists, Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) issued his directive, The Huai River Must Be Harnessed. This, under the direction of the Huai River Harnessing Commission, was to take five years.

The plan, involving at new route to the sea for the Huai River, was announced in the fall of 1950. The first phase consisted of moving 250 million cubic yards of earth for flood water storage, dike restoration, dredging and ditch digging. Reservoirs were created at Panchiao Paisha, and Shihmantan. In the second phase the Chinese workers moved over 500 million cubic yards of earth, including the excavation of a canal over one hundred miles long giving the Huai River a new outlet to the sea. In addition another three reservoirs; at Nanwau, Poshan, and Futeling; were built. According to the New China News Agency, the Huai River harnessing consumed the efforts of three million peasants.

Despite all this work the floods along the Huai River in 1954 were far more severe than those of 1931 disasters. Again in 1956, low-lying land was covered with as much as three feet of water in areas supposedly protected by the Huai River Harnessing Commission. Four million peasants had to be mobilized to drain the fields. In 1957 a Chinese official noted,

". . . it must be acknowledged that the Huai River Harnessing Commission in the beginning was not completely aware of the complicated nature and the long-term requirements in the harnessing of the Huai River...When the harnessing project was first launched, insufficient information and lack of experience were the causes for setting the standards too low for a few projects. "
Other reports in 1957 cite further, more specific problems of the program. The New China News Agency reports that,
"Owing to lack of hydrographic data and hurried start of construction, the standards of some important conservancy projects were too low and their quality was poor whereas the sites of reservoirs were improperly selected. "
The New China News Agency further states that,
"In the case of three reservoirs at Panchiao, Paisha and Shihmantan; the earth used was not up to the standard and the dams were not sufficiently rolled and beaten, and the dams cracked in some sectors--this made it necessary to reconstruct the reservoirs at twice the original investment. "
The reservoir at Futeling was found to be inadequate also. In addition, not enough effort and investment was devoted to sn~all and medium sized projects to take advantage of the increased capacity of the system for draining water-logged areas. Thus, because of inadequate complementary investment much of the increased capability created by the large scale project was unused and therefore, at least temporarily, wasted. Other official reviews of water conservancy projects of the time cite the following mistakes and defects:

But, despite these official criticisms of technical flaws of their programs, the Communist Party was not by any means willing to defer to technicians in the management of projects. In article in 1957, entitled "Draw Up Properly the Second Five Year Plan for the Huai River Projects, " the author states, with apparent incredulity,

"Persons who... onesidedly stressed professionals to the neglect of politics.. . seemed to take the view that regulation of rivers and water courses could only be directed by technical experts while the leadership of the Party was not necessary. "

Not only were Party administrators not willing to defer to technical experts they were finding that political "education" had its practical value. For example, the Vice Chairman of the Huai River Harnessing Commission noted that at first laborers on 'his projects were paid only 3.3 pounds of grain per day (the equivalent of 0.2 Yuan) but that this gradually had to be raised to 0.85 Yuan per day. In 1957 this wage was reduced to 0.6 Yuan, but the Vice Chairman maintained that the workers had no objection to this cut because political education made them aware of the importance of the national agricultural program and they voluntarily resolved to do 70 percent more work for 30 percent less pay.

Although the peasants did labor heroically and the official statistical results impressive (and probably literally true), the final effects are less spectacular. Often the inputs or intermediate products were more impressive than the final result. In particular, the programs to reduce soil erosion and siltation had some tragic disappointments. For example, in 1954 in one area of Shanxi peasants built 6654 catchment pands and 1143 embankments to contain silt. These sound like solid accomplishments but 70 percent of the ponds and 98 percent of the embankments were subsequently destroyed. What seem to be impressive results may, in actually, be wasted effort. Vast programs of tree planting were carried out to reduce erosion, but a check-up in 1955 revealed that only 60 percent of the planted trees were living and in some areas where trees were not nursed only 10 percent survived. A peasant saying of the time summed up the situation, "Trees are seen everywhere in the spring, reduced to half in the summer, uncared for in the autumn and seen no more in the winter. " Again the failure to make adequate complementary investment wasted the original investment.

In their eagerness to achieve quick, tangible results the Chinese Communist Party promoted many projects which wasted the energies and other scarce resources of the Chinese people. Even while praising the idea of comprehensive planning the Communist Party made disasterous errors in coordinating plans. In many cases great effort was put into projects that had no benefit and had to be redone. Even where the heroic efforts of the Chinese peasants produced real accomplishments it is not certain the benefits exceeded the costs. Revolutionary enthusiasm (or foolhardy optimism) can substitute for technical expertise and efficient management to only a very limited extent. The official disdain for economic principles of efficiency, costs and benefits was a very expensive delusion.


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