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Such frenzied growth may soon fall victim to the very water crisis it has helped create. Of the some 660 cities in China, more than 400 lack sufficient water, with more than a hundred of these suffering severe shortages. (Beijing is chronically short of water too, but it will be spared during the Olympics, thanks to engineering feats that divert water from the Yellow River.) In a society increasingly divided between urban and rural, rich and poor, it is China's vast countryside—and its 738 million peasants—that bears the brunt of the water shortage.

The lack of water is already hindering China's grain production, fueling concerns about future shocks to global grain markets, where even modest price hikes can have a disastrous effect on the poor. Wang Shucheng, China's former minister of water resources, put the situation dramatically: "To fight for every drop of water or die, that is the challenge facing China."

For Sun Baocheng, a sunbaked 37-year-old farmer from the central Ningxia village of Yanghe, this challenge is not merely rhetorical excess. Two years ago, after their wells and rain buckets went dry from drought, all 36 families in Yanghe abandoned their village to the encroaching desert. They came to a valley called Hongsipu, where more than 400,000 environmental refugees have settled for one reason: It has water, delivered by a Kuwaiti-funded aqueduct that snakes across the scrub desert from the Yellow River, 20 miles to the north. The Yanghe villagers have settled in a row of single-room brick houses near the concrete aqueduct, tending plots of land given by the Chinese government (along with about $25 a person) as part of a program to alleviate poverty and desertification.

Even though Sun is barely able to coax a few stalks of corn out of the sandy soil, he is inspired by the flourishing crops—and growing wealth—of more established refugees. "If we hadn't left our old village and come here," he says, "we wouldn't have survived." The Mother River, once again, is giving life. But with all the pressures on its dwindling water, one wonders: What will creating another oasis in the desert do to the river's own chances of survival?

Mao Zedong's mantra—"Sacrifice one family, save 10,000 families"—is still seared into Wang Yangxi's memory. Like the Chinese emperors before him, Chairman Mao was obsessed with taming the Yellow River, the life-giving force whose changes of course also unleashed devastating floods, earning it the enduring sobriquet "China's Sorrow." When, in 1957, construction began on the massive dam at Sanmenxia, on the river's middle section, 400,000 people—including Wang—lost their homes. Mao's slogan convinced them it was a noble sacrifice. "We were proud to help the national cause," says Wang, now 83. "We've had nothing but misery ever since."

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