Resettling China’s ‘Ecological Migrants’

Edward Wong, Resettling China’s ‘Ecological Migrants.The New York Times, 25 October 2016. Part 5 of an 8-part series on Carbon’s Casualties. “Articles in this series explore how climate change is displacing people around the world…. China calls them ‘ecological migrants’: 329,000 people whom the government had relocated from lands distressed by climate change, industrialization, poor policies and human activity to 161 hastily built villages. They were the fifth wave in an environmental and poverty alleviation program that has resettled 1.14 million residents of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, a territory of dunes and mosques and camels along the ancient Silk Road. Han Jinlong, the deputy director of migration under Ningxia’s Poverty Alleviation and Development Office, said that although the earlier waves were not explicitly labeled ecological migrants, they had also been moved because of the growing harshness of the desert. It is the world’s largest environmental migration project.”

What China is doing in Ningxia and a few other provinces hit hard by drought and other natural and man-made disasters is a harbinger of actions that governments around the globe, including the United States, could take as they grapple with climate change, which is expected to displace millions of people in the coming decades.

China has been battered by relentless degradation of the land and worsening weather patterns, including the northern drought. But mass resettlement has brought its own profound problems….

As in much of northern China, most of Ningxia’s 26,000 square miles are desert, including the areas chosen for resettlement. Government officials say places like Miaomiao Lake are still an improvement over Xihaigu — the vast region of southern and central Ningxia….

A third of Ningxia’s population — and most of the people who have been resettled — are Hui Muslim. Some Western scholars say that Chinese resettlement policies are at least partly aimed at controlling ethnic minority populations, and that officials may cite environmental reasons as a cover.

Though remote, the parched Xihaigu area has been on the radar of the central government since at least the 1980s, when officials began producing a series of grim reports on the viability of the land. A recent estimate by researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Ministry of Land and Resources said the region could sustain only 1.3 million people; the population in 2014 was about 2.3 million….

Across Ningxia, the average temperature has risen by 2.1 degrees Celsius, or 3.8 degrees Fahrenheit, in the last 50 years, more than half of that increase occurring from 2001 to 2010, according to a book by Ma Zhongyu, a former senior official, citing data from an international study. Annual precipitation has dropped about 5.7 millimeters, or about a quarter inch, every decade since the 1960s….

When the resettlement program was begun in 1983, migrants were given land in the north and told to move and build new homes on their own. These days, the government builds them homes, albeit small ones; of the $3 billion spent on the five waves of relocation, Mr. Zhang [deputy director of the Ningxia Poverty Alleviation and Development Office] said, half was used on the most recent one….

The relocation process begins with the government asking geological experts to look for sufficient arable land elsewhere in Ningxia, Mr. Zhang said, then gauging whether enough water can be transferred to those places.

The size of each family’s yard plot is about 150 square meters, or 1,600 square feet, with the house taking up a third of that. Many complain about the cramped quarters and the additional one mu of farmland — a sixth of an acre — that each person is allotted in most cases, far less than they had in their home villages….

The largest of Ningxia’s new migrant villages, Binhe Homeland, has more than 16,000 residents. The smallest have just a few hundred each. Miaomiao Lake is in the middle, with 7,000.

The 1,400 homes there look bland and anonymous, separated by low concrete walls, with only numbers to distinguish them: Dr. Ma’s is House 35 in District 5. Most villages have an elementary school, a market area and mosques, but seem more like refugee camps than organic communities.