A FLOODED TOWN: Huayang Town, a more than 1,000-year-old ancient town in Yangxian County in south Shaanxi's Hanzhong City, was submerged by flooding on July 29 (FENG GUO)
Whenever there is heavy rain, the residents of villages in the southern part of northwest China's Shaanxi Province take turns watching for mudslides and landslides. At the first hint of danger, they ring gongs and begin to evacuate the villages. Year in and year out, villagers in this region live in constant fear of disaster.
Despite their vigilance, tragedies remain a regular occurrence. On July 5 torrential rain in Lueyang County, Hanzhong City, triggered a 5,000-cubic-meter landslide that left 18 people dead, according to the local government.
Shaanxi features high mountains and steep hills and is highly prone to natural disasters including mud-rock flows, landslides and flooding. According to the Shaanxi Provincial Department of Land and Resources, more than 2,000 geological disasters occurred in the southern part of the province from 2001 to 2010, leaving more than 590 people dead or missing. These disasters incurred a combined direct economic loss of more than 46 billion yuan ($7.20 billion).
Given the high human and economic cost of regular landslides and floods, the provincial government has moved to relocate residents of the hardest-hit areas to other parts of Shaanxi.
On December 7, 2010, the government mapped out an ambitious resettlement plan. More than 2.79 million people in the province's most disaster-prone and least-developed mountainous areas will be moved over the next 10 years. They include 2.4 million residents in 28 counties in the three southern cities, Hanzhong, Ankang and Shangluo, and 392,000 from poverty-stricken Baiyu Mountain area in the north.
Ultimately it will be the largest resettlement program in China since 1949, moving twice as many people as the Three Gorges Dam Resettlement Program.
"For the residents in south Shaanxi's mountainous areas, this will not just be a move from danger to safety, but a leap from poverty to a more comfortable life," said Zhao Zhengyong, Governor of Shaanxi.
On May 6, the construction of the first batch of resettlement projects began in Ankang.
"After more than 20 people in a remote, mountainous village in south Shaanxi were instantly buried in a landslide caused by flooding last summer, we decided that we must move our people to safer environments," Zhao said. "That is our commitment to the people."
A landslide smothered much of Ankang's Qiyan Village on July 18, 2010, killing 29 people and flattening many houses. In that month alone, a total of 300 people were reported dead or missing in rain-triggered disasters in Shaanxi.
"Such an ambitious program is the result of the provincial government's determination to free the people in south Shaanxi from the catastrophic natural disasters that have plagued local residents for years," said Liu Zilong, Deputy Director of the Poverty Alleviation and Development Bureau of Ankang.
According to the plan formulated last December, 26.4 percent of the total population of south Shaanxi will be resettled.
Those who live in villages facing the most serious geological disasters will be the first to be moved. This year, it is estimated that 240,000 residents have been relocated.
Residents of villages that are exceptionally small and are located more than 5 km away from a highway will also be relocated to more accessible locations.
The migrants will be settled in towns and newly constructed villages. "A family of three, when relocated to a city, will be provided with a house of at least 70 square meters," Zhao said.
The government will offer a subsidy of 30,000 yuan ($4,688) to each relocated household that builds a new home by themselves. Particularly needy households will receive an additional 10,000 yuan ($1,563) each. Relocated rural households will also be provided with arable land to feed themselves.
Newly built settlements will have well-equipped schools and clinics, and residents will also receive vocational training to improve their employment prospects.
The resettlement program is expected to cost more than 110 billion yuan ($17.19 billion), most of which will be funded by the government.
While the villagers of south Shaanxi suffer from excess rainfall, villagers in the province's northern Baiyu Mountain area must contend with the opposite problem: a lack of precipitation. In extreme cases, villagers living in this area receive only one hard shower of rain per year.
Therefore Shaanxi's resettlement program also involves residents in the Baiyu Mountain area. Those who can afford apartments are already being encouraged to move to cities. The farming hukou, or registered permanent residence, of these migrants will be changed to a non-farming one, allowing them to enjoy greater access to education, training and employment opportunities.