WUHAN, Dec. 31 (Xinhua) - A decade ago, Yang Xiangyi grew 80 mu (5.3 hectares) of yellow ginger and could earn around 3,500 yuan (580 U.S. dollars) per mu by selling the crop, which is used to make saponin and hormonal drugs.
In 2003, Yang, a farmer in Sanlipo Village in Danjiangkou in the city of Shiyan in Hubei province, was forced to grow oranges instead -- a much less profitable crop -- as local authorities rooted out the highly polluting yellow ginger processing industry.
The move was designed to help protect the water source for a route in China's massive south-to-north water diversion project. But the switch from yellow ginger farming and other measures have meant a loss of household earnings for local residents.
Yellow ginger was once a major business in Shiyan. Local farmers grew 860,000 mu of the cash crop and hundreds of thousands of people were involved in the industry.
Now Yang suffers even more. Some of his land will be submerged as the Danjiangkou reservoir, located between the provinces of Hubei and Henan, is scheduled to rise significantly in 2014. The rise will allow water to flow to the country's parched northern regions along man-made channels that stretch 1,432 kilometers.
Yang said he felt sad that the water project has affected his standard of living. Many people from the country have been forced to work as migrants in cities to earn extra money instead.
"We are left with no choices. This is a state project and the northern regions -- including the capital city of Beijing -- need water so badly," he said.
Yang's situation is common among the tens of thousands of people in Hubei and Henan who were ordered to leave their homes near the reservoir to make way for its expansion.
Of the 340,000 people relocated in China's second-largest relocation program after the Three Gorges project, 124,000 have been displaced to higher areas around the reservoir as their low-lying homes and land will be submerged by the rising waters.
After eight years of construction, the height of the dam in the Danjiangkou reservoir, originally completed in 1973, has been raised by 14.6 meters to 176.6 meters. The expansion will enable it to store up to 29 billion cubic meters of water.
At full capacity, the reservoir has an area of 1,022 square km and is the second-largest in China only after the Three Gorges. It is designed to transfer relatively clean water from the Han River, a major tributary of the Yangtze River, to the north.
However, the 124,000 displaced locally now have less land to support their families. A total of 131,000 mu of farmland in Henan Province will be submerged by the expanded reservoir, said Zhang Yan, deputy director of the migration bureau in Xichuan county of Henan. Another 125,000 mu will be submerged in Hubei province.
This is not the only headache for the displaced.
Many of them have stashed away their savings and even incurred debt in order to be able to afford the newer, better houses that would replace their old-fashioned homes.
Li Zongguo, from Xiangzikou Village in Yunxian county of Shiyan, now lives in a spacious house in a settlement site built by the government. However, life has not become any easier.
The 58-year-old earns an income of little more than 10,000 yuan (1,650 U.S. dollars) a year through odd jobs in towns.
As a restaurant waitress, his 19-year-old daughter cannot add much to the household income. The family is scrambling to pay off 50,000 yuan in debts they owe after switching to the newer, bigger home.
In Junxian Township in the city of Danjiangkou, where some 10,000 displaced people have moved to higher places in the town, the migrants still owe a total of 23 million yuan in debts incurred while moving homes, said Ke Qinglin, the township's Communist Party chief.
The displaced also have very few employment opportunities, as many local factories have been closed for the sake of environmental protection around the water source.
Over the past decade, the city of Shiyan has shut down 329 small firms and relocated another 125 to protect the water quality, leading to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and over 1 billion yuan of annual tax revenue, said Sun Jianwen, head of the city's migration bureau. Tough environmental protection measures for existing firms add to their costs, the official said.
Development of traditional agriculture is also restricted as excessive use of fertilizer and pesticide could pollute the water.
Despite the challenges, authorities in Hubei have pledged to help the migrants raise their living standards to average levels in new locations within three years, and to surpass the average in another two years.
The authorities have also provided labor training programs and counseling on launching businesses.
Some regions, like the Wudang Mountain area, which is home to a famous complex of Taoist temples and renowned for the practice of Chinese martial arts, focus on the development of tourism or eco-agriculture to avoid polluting the water source.
Pan Faqun, a farmer-turned-businessman, said his restaurant has received more and more diners as millions of tourists come to Wudang Mountain every year.
"Thanks to the training program organized by the local government, my son-in-law improved his cooking skills and is the chief chef, and my wife learned something about restaurant management," he said, adding that restaurants like his receive an annual subsidy of 10,000 yuan from the local tourist bureau.
Hu Jiuming, Party chief of Yunxian County, said the central government should increase subsidies to the displaced and local governments and boost investment on key projects to help local economies.
Meanwhile, northern regions that benefit from the water diversion should serve as partners to help the poor inland regions around the water source develop their economies.
Hu also advised putting in place a long-term ecological compensation mechanism to boost local tax revenues to help tackle the challenges facing the migrants and to develop environmentally friendly industries.
The poverty-stricken regions around the reservoir even face funding shortages in ecological protection, Hu said.
The south-to-north water diversion project, first envisioned by China's late chairman Mao Zedong, was designed with eastern, central and western routes at an estimated overall cost of 500 billion yuan (82 billion U.S. dollars) and a construction period of 40 to 50 years.
The project aims to transfer 44.8 billion cubic meters of water annually from the country's south, mainly the reaches of the Yangtze River, to quench the water shortage in the north.
Construction of the eastern and central routes began in December 2002 and December 2003 respectively, and water diverted via the central route will mainly start to supply Beijing in October 2014.