Ancient irrigation project of Shanxi branded a heritage site

By Yuan Shenggao (China Daily)

Updated: 2023-11-24


This small pond, gathering water from Huoquan Springs in Hongtong county, is the source of an ancient irrigation project that was recently included in the list of World Heritage Irrigation Structures released by the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage. [Photo by Duan Jianwu for China Daily]

Huoquan Springs' history of resource management and its contribution to agriculture honored

There are many famed springs in China, with some known as "the No 1 or No 2 springs under heaven" for their value as picturesque tourist attractions. But it's rare to find one like Huoquan Springs in North China's Shanxi province in terms of its irrigation value.

An ancient irrigation system originating from Huoquan Springs in Shanxi's Hongtong county, was included in the latest list of World Heritage Irrigation Structures released by the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage on Nov 4.

It marks the first World Heritage Irrigation Structure site in Shanxi and the first such site in China featuring the use of springs as a source of irrigation. To date, China is home to 34 World Heritage Irrigation Structures sites.

The Huoquan irrigation system won fame not only for its long history, volume of canal runoff and area of farmlands it covers, but for its role in water use governance in ancient times, according to experts and local officials.

Huoquan is a group of springs at the foot of the Huoshan Mountain. Archaeological discoveries showed that the springs were a source of drinking water during the Neolithic Age. Historical records indicated that construction of a large-scale irrigation project started in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), with spring water diverted to nearby farmland through the Northern Huo and Southern Huo canals.

As a result, the two Shanxi counties of Hongtong and Zhaocheng became a major agricultural base in the province for more than 1,000 years since the Tang Dynasty.

However, disputes frequently occurred between the two counties vying for more water from the system. Sometimes disputes evolved into fierce fights between farmers, according to historical records.

In 1725, during the reign of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) emperor Yongzheng, Liu Dengyong, government chief of the Pingyang prefecture, which administrated the two counties, ordered the building of a new water diversion dam for distributing water between Hongtong and Zhaocheng.

By accurately calculating the farmland areas of the two counties, seventenths of the water went to Zhaocheng and three-tenths went to Hongtong. The rates of water flow were measured by 11 iron columns erected at the water gate, which divided the runoff into 10 equal volumes.

Historical documents said that another innovation for water allocation was the canal chief system. This was an institution featuring great local autonomy, with officials elected by local farmers and other stakeholders, instead of being appointed by the government.

After studying the documents, Li Yunpeng, a researcher on China's history of water utilities at the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research based in Beijing, said that the prominent feature of the irrigation project is the well-established water governance system associated with it.

"In China, we have a lot of ancient irrigation projects that are still functioning to this day, like the famed Dujiangyan project in Sichuan province," Li said. "The Huoquan project is not among the largest by scale but it stands out with an innovative governance system for water distribution."

He noted that the governance system was known as "Huoquan Water Regulation" among water utility history researchers.

"In the region benefiting from the irrigation project, there are a lot of documents left on the governance system in the form of texted files and stone stele inscriptions, allowing other regions in the country to duplicate the Huoquan experience," Li said. "The documents are also of great significance for historical research."

Zhang Junfeng, a history researcher at Shanxi University based in the provincial capital of Taiyuan, said Huoquan Water Regulation was among the best practices in water governance in ancient China.

"Historical documents show that this was a system featuring great equality, as a result of the involvement of a great number of stakeholders and compromises after numerous talks and negotiations," Zhang said.

In 1954, the counties involved in the irrigation project merged into one, under the name of Hongtong, eventually ending a history of disputes over irrigation. The water diversion dam and the pavilion housing several stone steles are still there, as silent witnesses to history.

Today, the spring water nurtures thousands of hectares of farmland through several canals originating from the dam.

Many locals are still amazed at the scale of the irrigation project. Duan Hongfei, a local official, said that after several major renovations and expansions in modern times, the irrigation project now covers more than 6,600 hectares of farmlands, or 12.2 percent of the total area of Hongtong county.

"Our decades of hydrological observations show that the average annual runoff into Huoquan canals is 100 million cubic meters," Duan said. "This is a huge volume of water considering it's from a group of springs in a small area."

The uniqueness of the project is that the canals' source is a small pond of about 10,000 square meters, which receives water from 100-plus springs at the foot of the Huoshan Mountain, according to Duan.

Shi Jianfeng, head of the water resources bureau of Hongtong, said the county is cooperating with experts at China University of Geosciences, Beijing to draft new plans for the protection and rational development of the irrigation system, aiming to make it a sustainable project for future generations.

Farmers in Hongtong are grateful for the benefits brought by the irrigation project. The village of Fangdui, for instance, has a total farmland area of 113 hectares, of which 100 hectares have access to the irrigation system.

"There is a huge difference between irrigated farming and dry-land farming," said Li Qingyun, chief of the village. "Irrigated farms feature higher yields and mean more revenue to farmers."

Du Xinshe, a local farmer, said that the net income from his farm of less than 1 hectare is about 40,800 yuan ($5,730). "The income, along with revenue from other sources, can ensure a decent life for my family," Du said.

Kang Meixiang and Fan Zhen contributed to this story.