2012 Student-Faculty Fellows Program Report: St. Olaf College

Sustainable Development in Northwestern China:
Relationships between Water and People

Mentor: Professor Xun Zhang Pomponio
Students: Daniel Habesland, Virginia Ma, Olivia Schares, Matt Venker

From left to right: a Hui farmer, Mr. Zhang (Pingliang Water and Soil Conservation Station Engineer), Daniel Habesland (student), Xun Pomponio (faculty member), Hui Villege Head, Virginia Ma (student), Olivia Schares (student), Matthew Venker (student).

Project Abstract

Our St. Olaf College study focuses upon the sustainable development of water resources in Northwestern China. We spent over four weeks in China compiling survey data, conducting personal interviews and securing data for quantitative analysis to facilitate the independent research projects of each student participant. Research was supported by the close ties established between Professor Pomponio and Chinese colleagues at Northwestern University in Xian. They orchestrated a 36 hour research experience in Xunyi County in the middle of Shaanxi Province where we visited two model villages, one county coal project, the water supply source for the project, and one energy-chemical industrial compound and its water supply source, and one reservoir construction site. Our research was also supported by Dr. Pomponio’s friends at Lanzhou University in Gansu Province and important officials in the Pinliang Water and Soil Conservation Bureau. They supported our research of one watershed just south of Pinliang, Zhifang Gully, where for nine days our field research took place. Once this visit to Pinliang was completed we spent a week at Lanzhou University and presented our research discoveries to faculty members and graduate students at the university. Finally, with support given by the head of the Geography and Tourism Department at Xinjiang Normal University, we devised and carried out a field study plan of the Urumqi River Basin.

David Habesland
My research in China focuses on water and land management practices and how they affected farmers in the regions we visited. Of particular relevance to my research was the time we spent in the Zhifanggou watershed, which lies on the Loess Plateau and has some of the most erosion-prone soil on earth. My paper considers government efforts to sustain farming efforts in the region through dam building (to assure that adequate water is available), the encouragement of terracing, and support for education and infrastructure development. Given the rugged topography and increasing variable rainfall patterns it is still an uphill battle to sustain agriculture in this region.

Virginia Ma
My research is upon evolving rural education in drought prone regions of China. The main focus of my study is rural Ergou Village near the city of Pingliang in Gansu Province. Through informal interviews with the village chief, the elementary school principal, school teachers and others in the village, and careful observation, it is clear that gradual improvements in rural education are being made. Free compulsory education through the 9th grade and the new curriculum reform are notable recent achievements, and in Ergou Village students receive a free nutritious breakfast for each day they attend school. Nonetheless, the educational disparity between rural and urban students is still evident. There is also a strong incentive for middle school graduates in rural China to begin work as soon as they complete 9th grade to earn income for their families.

Olivia Schares
My research centers upon efforts being made in Northwest China to foster economic development in a region where water resources are limited and the environment is fragile. I found that China cannot be summarized by a simple equation such as, “high population growth + rapid development = environmental destruction + x(corruption)” because one quickly discovers that China seems more like a number of smaller, disparate countries, each with its own set of issues that are complex, individualized and human. One also discovers that there are immense contradictions between development and environmental costs; for example, in Xunyi the government is encouraging green model projects and building new model housing for farmers, while at the same time adding new coal mines to the five already existing in the area. The challenge of finding a suitable solution that balances development and improved quality of life for rural Chinese while protecting water, soil and environmental concerns is clearly daunting.

Matthew Venker
It is clear that the lack of available environmental resources in Northwest China – especially fresh water – makes sustainable growth in this fragile ecosystem difficult. Nonetheless, the Chinese government has established a goal of creating a “harmonious relationship” between people and the environment in the area. My research considers the response of Han Chinese and Kazakh communities to these daunting challenges. It shows that Han farmers near the city of Pingliang in Gansu Province are readily adapting their farming techniques in response to government directives, while in Xinjiang Province, Kazakh communities are being creative in exploring their “cultural capital” by working to lure Western and Chinese tourists to their nongjiale homes to augment their incomes.