2005 Student-Faculty Fellows: St. Olaf College, Team 2

Sustainable Development in Western China:
Water Study in Sichuan and Gansu

Mentor: Xun Z. Pomponio, Economics
Students: Angela P. Lau, ’05; Brendan D. Mrosak, ’06; David L. Sluis, ’05; Bin Xue, ’05


In Minqin Botanical Garden with farmers, Bin Xue, Xun Pomponio (faculty), Angie Lau, Brendan Mrosak, David Sluis, Professor Gao from China Science Academy

Xun Z. Pomponio

Sustainable economic development in a cross-disciplinary way has not stirred much interest among Chinese economists. China’s natural scientists and engineers are doing most of the work. Thanks to them and their innovations, water conservation in Minqin has reached deeply into the areas of irrigation efficiency, water-saving and production efficiency; only water rights and allocation remain largely unchanged, once again mainly because of foot-dragging among China’s economists. This discovery has confirmed my suspicion that I must begin my collaborative research in the direction of sustainable development initially with the natural scientists in China. This direction will not only promote future institutional connections between two sides of the world, but also, more importantly, generate increased collaboration and cooperation among both economists and natural scientists with an interest in sustainability, both Chinese and non-Chinese.

Angela Lau

With the Hongshaliang Village farmers

Coming to China on the Freeman grant has been quite the learning experience. I was able to learn first hand from water experts about how water affects their specific regions and then had the opportunity to see the places and speak to the people that water experts referred to. I have not only learned more information on water conversation than I thought I would ever need to know but have also had my naive egocentric blinders removed from my eyes when experiencing home visits during our research. While traveling throughout Gansu and Sichuan provinces our group has felt the contradictions of the phenomenon: the cold strictness and control that the Chinese government has over the people and the hospitable welcoming of the Chinese culture. This experience has led me to realize the opportunity and responsibility that the Freeman grant has given to me: the opportunity to perform research on a topic that I care about and then share my findings with others. The more people are educated on an issue such as water disparity, the more likely change will occur. Currently I am compiling the many interviews that our group had with the many water specialists, professors, and local people and then finding credible resources to back up my findings. The case studies/narratives cover the sociological perspective of the group research. I asked questions regarding how the lack of water and poor water policy affects the daily lives of the people now and in the past, including issues such as daily consumption, income levels, type of work, education level, as well as how the water in the area affects peoples’ health.

Brendan Mrosak

The Frontier of Tengerer Desert and irrigation land in Minqin

The ASIANetwork research grant provided me with a unique experience that enabled me to take my research to another level by actually visiting the region studied. I found that in addition to theoretical knowledge and data research, personal experience is equally important. Our research group was able to meet the farm families who are affected and see first-hand the severity of the water resource shortage. This experience spotlighted the very objective to studying economics and has encouraged me to pursue a career in economic development and international policy. I was also able to create a network of contacts and friends that will become useful, as further research will surely continue. I greatly appreciate the opportunity I was given and will gladly share this experience with the academic community.

As China’s GDP growth rate maintains above eight percent annually, increases in income inequality and overexploitation of natural resources are becoming the most concerning aspects determining China’s future. More specifically, the new trend of economic research is not just focused on development, but sustainable development. Regions such as Gansu with severe resource depletion and environment vitiation are of the most concern. My research paper focuses on the available irrigation systems in Gansu and the overall efficiency of a single farm family to a broader scope of the farming community located between Dingxi and Minqin. This paper maps the areas of specific irrigation systems, what is grown in those areas, what are the costs and benefits of the crops and their respective inputs, and whether or not incentives exist for using advanced irrigation systems.

David Sluis

The only adjective that will sufficiently describe my reaction to my trip to China is eye-opening. I went into the trip not really knowing what to expect. All I knew was what was written in the newspapers and discussed on television. Most of this information had to do with China’s economic expansion, and how it was becoming a power in the region and the world. What struck me the most overall about China is just how different we are culturally. When I hear that a country is modernizing and developing I always assume they are becoming more like the US and Europe. This is not the case for China. They have a distinct way of doing things that does not seem to be changing. One particularly awkward cultural moment occurred because of the Chinese presumption of the parental-like authority of professors. In the United States professors are treated with respect, but they are not waited upon. I think some professors thought that we were rude because we did not know the protocol.

My trip to China did reaffirm, once more, my belief in the common humanity of most people in the world. In the end we all want to feed our families and hope for a brighter future for our kids. Also, people – no matter how poor they are – do not walk around thinking how poor they are compared to others. People make do with what they have, and try to be as happy as they possibly can with what they have. Money does not buy happiness, but it definitely makes being unhappy more comfortable. In this way my China experience was similar to my Africa experience.

China is a land blessed with a bountiful number of the world’s natural resources including the sixth biggest water resource endowment of any country in the world. Unfortunately, China also has the largest population in the world with over 1.3 billion people, or a fifth of the world’s population. This turns a huge absolute amount of water into a dismal amount on a per capita basis. In fact, China has only one fourth of the average water resource endowment on this per capita basis. This creates a situation where economic theory can be used to derive how to best allocate this scarce water supply. The purpose of this study is to explain how China’s property and water rights regimes have affected the allocation of water, and the sustainable development of the Chinese economy. The focus of this paper will primarily be on Gansu because that is where the water scarcity is located. Sichuan, although interesting, does not have such a scarcity, and therefore can afford to be inefficient in their use of water. This does not mean that they should be, however. All countries should be working hard to conserve natural resources. This paper suggests a quota system for water allocation, which may transform all places in China into water resource efficient societies.

Bin Xue

There were many memorable events and experiences we had on this trip. Two stand out for me. One is the interview we had with the Honshaliang villagers in Minqin, which left a deep impression on me. Up to now I never thought about anything but my own life. I thought about having a nice car, a good job, and a comfortable life. After visiting the farmers, I have realized how lucky I am and how little the others in developing countries have. The other experience, a road trip in Sichuan, also left a deep impression on me. The rapid development in China was not without its trade-off. The road-side mountain erosion due to rock mining and wood cutting generated road blocks and thus severe traffic jams; the endless line of trucks carrying overload products caused the road to sink in and crack everywhere; the newly setup cement factories and hydropower plants alongside the river caused both air and river pollution along the way. It is important for us to share the experience with others so we can start a conversation in helping other countries and people to develop in a more earth friendly way.

My paper centers around the last twenty years of history on government policy of water conservation and irrigation channel maintenance in Gansu and Sichuan province. So far I’ve been organizing and compiling my notes, pictures, and additional research data from the trip. For the part in Gansu, I will focus on Minqin area, and for Sichuan, I will focus on Mianyang area. I found that in the past twenty years the irrigation channel maintenance and water conservation practices in the two areas are different due to the difference in water resource abundance. The availability of water and the development in the areas had a very large impact on water culture and on local people’s lives. I will also include pictures in my research paper as part of the presentation about western China’s people and water culture.