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GSBN:China News #2 from Kelly

X-Sender: adraprc@...(Unverified)
Date: Sun, 06 Aug 2000 07:53:43 -0700
To: billc@...
From: Kelly Lerner & Linda Zhu adraprc@...
Subject: A post for GSBN

Hi all,
Here's the second update from Inner Mongolia. I've added a few names to the
list. If you didn't receive my first report and would like a copy, let me
know at klerner@.... Happy reading and happy trails.
It's Tuesday morning and I'm sitting here in my "motel room" in
Luan-Jin-Tan, ADRA's primary construction site in Inner Mongolia, munching
on hard toasted soy beans and watching the mid-morning sun break through
the clouds after a night of light rain. My early-morning site check found
all the workers sleeping-in for a change, enjoying the chance to snooze
soundly in the unusually cool weather. Before the rain last night, there
had only been 20mm (less than an inch) rain in the last 60 days and I wish
it could have lasted a little longer even though our straw bales are
uncovered. Inspecting the bale pile early this morning in a light drizzle,
I found that the bales are so dense (and the rain so light) that the
moisture has only gone into the bales 3 inches or so. They will easily dry
out in one day of sun and dry wind.
Luan-Jin-Tan is one of several irrigated agricultural areas ("man-made
oasis" as they call them here) springing up out of steppe and high desert.
Luan-Jin-Tan was established in the early 1990's and has the raw feel of a
frontier town, complete with pool tables under an awning on the main street
and a brothel with karaoke and pounding techo tracks. Traveling to see
desertification of the great salt lake last Saturday, we visited an older
irrigated agricultural area, settled in the mid 1970's at the end of the
Cultural Revolution. It sprung up out of the surrounding desert like a
green mirage, fed from an underground aquifer that has dropped 12 meters in
a short 25 years. We were drawn by dark orange smoke, a sight I knew from
Oregon's Willamatte valley. We watched straw burning in a field while a
friend explained our project in Luan-Jin-Tan, building houses out of straw
instead of burning it. A crusty old man listening from the side of the
road, spit on the ground and said, "Luan-Jin-Tan. What a pit! I wouldn't go
there if you paid me" as he stalked away.
Chinese language is complex, rich with potential puns and double meanings.
Had I known the meaning of Luan-Jin-Tan, I might have thought twice about
building here. Luan usually means twin. Jin is well (for water) and Tan is
beach (or just a flat area since we're a long way from any ocean). Twin
Well Beach. Doesn't sound bad that way, but the locals pronounce Luan a
little differently so that it means "confused" or "messy" rather than
"twin". Confused Well Beach. Hmmmm, that doesn't sound so good. Underground
water is scarce here and it took many aborted drilling attempts before two
salty, low-flow wells were established.
All of the irrigation water is pumped the Yellow River, 30 km away and goes
through 4 pumping stations with a vertical rise of over 200 meters (656
feet). The muddy water flows in open canals, evaporating all the way and
finally floods each farmer's field in turn, feeding the watermelons, corn,
sunflowers and wheat. I'll never crack open a sunflower seed again without
seeing Luan-Jin-Tan's huge splashes of bright yellow and lush green against
the camel-colored soil. A visit and a chat are never complete without
slicing open a watermelon, praising its Christmas colors and sweet nectar,
inquiring about the season, wiping sticky juice from chin and forearms. A
familiar ritual in a foreign land.
Given the water situation, why did they establish this community in the
first place you may ask. Basically, it boils down to the desertification
caused by overpopulation of this fragile land. Alashan's population has
grown at least fourfold in the last 20 years ( Alashan is a region of Inner
Mongolia, about the size of New Zealand). More people mean more herds.
Sheep nibble off the tops of plants, but hardy goats eat just about
anything, tearing up the roots, leaving the loose soil at the mercy of the
winds, blowing all the way to Beijing during spring sand storms.
Yesterday evening before the rain started, sand swirled angrily through our
courtyard, sneaking through the smallest crack, coating every surface with
a fine grit, decorating the floor with an intricate cable knit pattern of
drifted sand that reminded me of cashmere sweater promotions at the GAP and
Nordstroms. A simple purchase on one side of the world. Hungry goats and
sand overtaking the Yellow River on the other. I know it's not that simple,
but I know that we are intimately connected to each other in ways I can't
even imagine. We all share one world.
The desert here is growing by 1000 sq. kilometers (386 sq. miles - 247,105
acres) every year. Herders on the steppe are finding it harder and harder
to feed their animals. The minimal patches of bunch grasses and shrubs
dotting the rocky soil are becoming embryonic dunes as blowing sand gathers
at their roots, suffocating them from the bottom up. Most herders have come
Luan-Jin-Tan for the promise of free building sites and farm land, to make
a better life for themselves and their children.
A few have learned to farm well and have become quite successful, building
large (100 square meter-1076 square feet) brick houses with 6 in 12 red
tile roofs and elaborately-patterned gypsum tile coved-ceilings and gaudy
chandeliers. After 8 years, most families are still living in small brick
shacks (50 square meters-538 square feet) with mud mortar between the brick
courses and no roof insulation, stockpiling materials to eventually build a
larger house. To keep warm through the night, everyone sleeps on the Kang -
a raised sleeping platform similar to a masonry stove, with a flue snaking
back and forth through it. The smoke from a small, hot fire of corn cobs
flows through a mud-brick maze of the Kang, heating the sleeping surface
toasty warm. The residents may in fact, be warmer than those in the new
brick houses who can usually only heat one room in their fancy, big house.
Interviewing the residents of the 18 straw-bale houses built last year,
everyone remarked on the warmer temperatures. Using less coal, they can
heat two or three rooms instead of just one. A young married couple moved
in February and didn't fire the stove at all, but they may have been making
some heat of their own. One woman said she thinks it would be difficult to
move back into a brick house after living in a straw-bale. Of course the
project is not without its problems. Financial disputes between the county
government and the contractors left the residents without electricity or
running water all winter. With some assertive American pushing in the last
two weeks, half the houses now have electric meters. Male and female
diggers in soft corduroy flats and head scarfs to keep out the blowing sand
are toiling with shovels and picks, heads now below ground level, digging
the main waterline for this new community of 68 straw-bale houses.
Though I've only been here two and half weeks, the houses are sprouting up
faster than flowers after a desert rain. China is built of bricks. Every
mother and father dreams of building a large brick house for their son-a
powerful advantage in securing a good wife and a retirement home for
themselves. Reflecting this deep cultural preference, our current design
features a three wythe front brick wall (with big windows facing south, of
course) and interior brick walls with built in chimneys - a masonry heater
of sorts. The north, east and west walls are bale in-fill between
rebar-reinforced, brick columns which support the main roof beams. As
duplexes, the houses only loose heat on three walls instead of four. At 64
square meters each (689 square feet), these humble houses are no match for
the larger brick houses, they outshine the average resettler shack in size,
comfort and affordability.
A new, large brick house (100 square meters) costs 50,000 - 60,000 RMB.
With ADRA's and local government subsidies, resettlers pay only 9,000 RMB
for their new insulated houses (about $1000 USD or $1.65/ square foot).
Actual building cost is quite low too, only 21,000 RMB - about $3.80/
square foot for all materials and contracted labor. To build capacity this
year, we are working with actual construction companies. It may be only a
matter of time, before resettlers start building straw-bale houses for
themselves. After the building project last year, all the left over bales
disappeared instantly, only to reappear as pig shelters in private yards.
No wolves in this neck of the woods.
Insulation isn't the only thing resettlers are buying. With mud mortar, no
bond beam and no-connections between the brick walls and the roof, the
brick houses will be heavy, expensive grave mounds in the next earthquake.
According to China's own seismic risk maps, the desert surrounding the
Helan mountains can expect earthquakes with ground accelerations more than
3.2 meters/second squared (risks similar to the San Francisco Bay area or
southern California). With simple rebar reinforcing in the brick columns, a
continuous concrete bond-beam topping the straw-bale walls, simple roof
connections and wire bale tie-downs (engineered brilliantly and pro bono by
David Mar and Henri Mannik of Tipping Mar and Associates), the residents of
these straw-bale houses may be the only ones living after the next quake.
Without seeing it first hand, it's hard to image that moving earth can
reduce a house to a pile of bricks. Almost every bar of reinforcing has
been an educational struggle with contractors who are used to doing things
a certain way. I've found that builders all over the world are often
stubborn and conservative, relaying on tradition in a practical fashion to
keep them from making dangerous mistakes (financial or structural) in the
complicated business of building.
The contractors and I have spent many hours at the site, stacking up bricks
and rebar, sketching in the dirt and waving our hands at each other in a
concerted effort to work out all the details. We often understand each
other long before my translator can catch up, communicating without words
in the three dimensional language of building. Finding a rhythm as we mix
straw and mud to fill cracks between bales. I relish these hours, like
hashing out a design with Pete Gang (my California design cohort) or
figuring compound curves with my brother, building a new deck on his
trimaran. Home away from home. Building, I have a strong bond with the men
and women in this wind swept place. In spite of exterior differences, we
are more alike than different.
That's the news from Luan-Jin-Tan, where the wind is strong, watermelon
juice flows faster than sand and sunflowers light up the sky. My love to
you all.
Bill Christensen

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