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GSBN:China News #1

X-Sender: adraprc@...
Date: Thu, 27 Jul 2000 08:17:56 -0700
To: billc@...
From: Kelly Lerner & Linda Zhu adraprc@...

Hi Bill,
Thought you might like this for the GSBN list. I can't post directly from this address in China.

Greetings from China,
This is the first in a series of updates on this summer's natural building adventure, teaching straw-bale construction basics in Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang Province, China. If I've included your address by mistake and you have no interest in China, alternative building or my misadventures, please let me know and I'll take you off the list. As I assembled this email list over the last few days, a smile came to my face as I remembered my connection to each of you - some from as far back as childhood. A big thanks to all of you for your friendship and support over the years- holding my hand or pushing me as the situation demanded. If you want to do the same now, reply to klerner@...

A little background is probably in order for this first post. Those who know the story can skip ahead, it will be dry - just the facts, ma'am, just the facts. I'm here working for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency-ADRA (similar to MCC, for all the Mennonites in the audience) for the fourth summer in a row. Scott Christiansen, currently ADRA China Country Director, first schemed to introduce straw-bale construction in the frosty steppes (think -40F) of Mongolia, way back in 1995. The architecture firm where I was working at the time designed two small straw-bale houses and a couple of my friends went over to Mongolia to supervise construction.

It was a small beginning for what has become a huge United Nations Development Programme-UNDP, project in Mongolia building social service buildings. In Mongolia, clinics and schools can use 50% of their yearly operating budget for heating. Passive solar tempered, straw-bale insulated buildings can save over 75% of the coal currently used for heating. It used to be that clinics would have to chose between buying medicine, paying salaries or heating the building. They often closed in the winter. Now, straw-bale clinics can pay their staff, have basic remedies and stay open for patients year round.

I first traveled to Mongolia in 1997 and ended up staying 4 months, introducing and adapting straw-bale construction for ADRA Mongolia and UNDP. The constant diet of mutton and the sub-arctic winter temperatures were balanced by the deep friendships with Mongolian builders and the wide open steppe and I returned in 1998 and 1999 (summer only , thank you). The Mongolian straw-bale project in now firmly in the hands of UNDP and ADRA Mongolia has turned their efforts to other projects there. I've moved on China.

ADRA often spearheads relatively small projects and after struggling with the bureaucracy of the UNDP Mongolia last summer, I'm glad to be working on the front lines of a small project again (most days). Most importantly, gastronomically speaking, China's fresh fruit, veggies and hot sauces beat Mongolia's mutton and sour cheese hands down. Fueled on a diet of tofu and watermelon, over the last three years in China, we're built a straw-bale school (to replace one destroyed in an earthquake) and 21 houses, mostly for desertification refugees here in Inner Mongolia (a province of China - not to be confused with outer Mongolia which is an independent country, after over 70 years of Soviet control).

Inner Mongolia lies along China's northern border, 95-124 degrees latitude, 38-52 degrees north latitude (I am a just a bit of a map freak). It's mostly high desert-steppe: silty, rocky soil with bunch grasses, a few tiny-leafed, creeping plants and gnarled low bushes. Old eroded mountains push up unexpectedly with jagged peaks stripped with layers of coal. The highest, north facing slopes are covered with Larch trees - the only growing thing above 2 feet tall in the natural landscape. Sheep, goats and camels (the two humped variety) can find enough to eat, but barely this year because of a nasty drought. Most of the four to twelve yearly inches of rain usually fall in July and August. In the last week and a half since I've been here, I've only felt a sprinkle. The incessant winds are drying up the irrigation ponds near the city gardens and vegetable plant leaves are beginning to fade and curl.

The Yellow River flows through this dishwater brown and pale green lunar landscape like a verdant, neon-green snake. Though the drought has turned it muddy and it has receded from it's banks by several hundred feet on either side, pumping stations still suck up the silty brown water to distribute it in open canals to fields lush with corn, beans, pumpkins and sunflowers. Each family farms 4 mu/person - about 2/3 of an acre, leased for 30 years. A family of 5 (grandmother, grandfather, son,daughter-in-law and the prescribed one child) will make their living off of 3.3 acres, mostly cultivated by hand with the help of a donkey.

Last Sunday, I stood on the irrigation canal with thriving fields behind me and watched the sand dunes building, right on the far side of the canal. In many places, sand dunes are over taking the river, blowing 700 million cubic meters of sand into the river per year. The blowing sand is a clear symptom of larger environmental ills. Drought, deforestation of the scrubby bushes (for heating and cooking fuel) and an increase of goats grazing the steppe have freed the find sandy soil. Farmers and herders alike are being forced from their land and must find a new place to live. That's where straw-bale houses come in. The local government estimates that 300 families per year need to relocate- both because of desertification and to remove grazing goats from sensitive areas to avoid further erosion. This year and last, ADRA has helped to build 68 straw-bale houses, but more importantly, we've trained three construction companies and fine-tuned a design for local materials, so the building can easily continue without outside input.

This post has gone on far longer than I anticipated. I'm always interested in putting everything in context, I guess. Now that you've got the big picture, I'll zoom in on the details. Next time - a report on the agricultural town where we're building, training the workers, and stories of the families that are moving into the straw-bale houses. Take care all,

Bill Christensen

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