It was as if water had been sent from the heavens. Tuanjie, a village under the administration of Zunyi City, is home to the Gelao ethnic group. As recently as 20 years ago, rice was a rare commodity in Tuanjie. The village didn’t have the stable water supply necessary to plant the crop, so residents relied on corn as their staple.

In particularly dry years, their harvest failed, and the villagers were left with no more than four or five months’ worth of corn. At one point, the entire village drew water from a single well, and even that would frequently dry up.

But today, water flows into the village through a canal chiselled deep into the side of a nearby 1,300-meter-high peak — all thanks to the efforts of former village Party branch secretary Huang Dafa.

Locals call the channel the “Dafa canal” in honor of its now-82-year-old builder. Huang has spent the better part of his life working on the canal — which cuts through Lingbao Mountain — and the story of the project’s successes and failures spans 36 years.

“The water is my life, and this canal is like my child,” Huang said.

While China’s average GDP per capita is about 55,000 yuan ($8,000), Guizhou’s is just over 33,000 yuan, making the province one of the poorest in the nation.

Huang’s children — two sons and six daughters — dropped out of school at a young age. Paying for their education was too costly for the impoverished family, and at home, the children could help with farmwork. The family member with the highest level of education is Huang’s youngest son, who managed to finish middle school and became a teacher.

The generations before Huang had all accepted Tuanjie’s fate, but when Huang became the village chief at the age of 28, he began dreaming of completing a herculean task: bringing water to the village.

In the 1960s, the Red Flag Canal in central China’s Henan province made headlines nationwide. In a region known for its droughts and water shortages, the locals built a 70-kilometer-long canal that brought water in from the nearby river and mountains. The Red Flag Canal became an inspiration for the Tuanjie residents, and Huang committed to leading the village’s own water initiative.

Image: Vox EU

The idea was to draw water from the Luosi River, located just a few kilometers from Tuanjie. For the villagers, however, the canal was a massive engineering project. For a decade, they tried to dig their own version of the Red Flag Canal. Eventually, most gave up.

Nevertheless, Huang persisted. He visited water management stations to learn about canal construction. Despite only having an elementary school education, he bought a dictionary and painstakingly looked up the vocabulary words he didn’t know. Year after year, he applied for government support to start the project anew, but he never received a reply from authorities.

Eventually, in the winter of 1990, Huang decided to hike 100 kilometers to Zunyi City, a journey that took him two days. Once he arrived, he waited near the home of the former deputy director of Zunyi County’s water resources bureau, which is responsible for Tuanjie Village. His toe poked out of his standard-issue canvas sneakers. Although the authorities showed sympathy toward Tuanjie’s desperate circumstances, they asked the villagers to put forth 10,000 yuan as a sign of their commitment to building the canal with the bureau’s support.

At the time, the average Tuanjie resident lived on less than 100 yuan a year, so scraping together 10,000 yuan was a struggle. Some people refused to contribute as soon as they heard it was for a project that, in their eyes, had already proved to be a failure. Some villagers scoffed, “You already failed the first time, so I’ll eat my words if you manage to succeed the second time around.” Most, however, were supportive, Huang said.

The project began again in 1992, with Huang leading more than a hundred villagers through the mountains to start digging the canal.

The local government contributed 60,000 yuan in cash to the effort and 190,000 kilograms of corn to feed the laborers, as well as a skilled construction worker to assist, but the villagers still had to procure their own explosives, hammers, and the raw materials to make cement.

The blueprint called for the canal to pass through a cliff that measured more than 500 meters long and 300 meters high. Digging the canal on this precipice required the utmost caution. Taking the lead, Huang tied a rope around his waist and hung off the cliff to test its strength. Surveying the precipice alone took half a year.

The main canal finally opened in August 1994, two and a half years after the project began. Overnight, Tuanjie Village began receiving water. Now, two decades later, green rice shoots and yellow rapeseed flowers dot the village’s fields.

The canal brings water to each home, allowing households to irrigate their farmland and raise livestock. Yet this village’s poverty alleviation efforts are far from finished. Every fifth family lives below the national poverty line, set at 2,855 yuan per year.

Though he’s now an octogenarian, Huang still spends his time cleaning silt from the canal and patching up leaks — and he has no intention of slowing down. “I can out-dig any young person with a hoe,” he said. “Even when plowing soil, a cow might be faster, but sooner or later, I will catch up.”