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BAODING, China (Reuters) - Dusty villages far from China's capital are paying their own price for the government's plan to stage a postcard-perfect Olympic Games, enduring shrunken crops, drained wells and contention over lost land and homes.
China is rushing to finish canals to pump 300 million cubic meters of "emergency" water to Beijing for its "green" Games, ensuring a lush, sparkling host city greets the world in August.
The 309 km of channels and pipes cut into Hebei province, next to the capital, will take water from farming country already beset by drought and environmental strains.
Villagers watching a frantic "100-day battle" to complete the main canal by a late-April deadline wondered how much of the price of a leafy Beijing they should bear.
"For the country, it's a good thing. It will bring water to Beijing so everything runs smoothly," said Shi Yinzhu, herding sheep near the 100-metre wide canal in Tang county.
"But for us here, they had to pump away underground water to dig the canal and we've lost a lot of land too ... Sometimes you wonder if they need all the water more than us here."
China is determined to make 2008 a live-to-air affirmation of its economic miracle. But Beijing's plan to draw water from its parched neighbor also dramatizes the environmental blowback from the country's explosive, city-skewed growth.
"There have been many basic problems with the geology and local circumstances that just weren't anticipated," Dai Qing, a Beijing environmental activist long critical of government policy, said of the Olympics water project.
"But the fundamental one is they don't have enough water in northern China to begin with. Why should they pay such a heavy price for Beijing?"
The Olympic plan is one segment of the larger South-to-North Water Transfer Project planned to tap the Yangtze River and tributaries by 2010 and quench northern China, where explosive industrial and urban growth has exhausted rivers and aquifers.
Beijing officials initially hoped the entire central route of the project would be ready for the Games, when water demand is expected to spike by up to 30 percent above average, reaching 2.75 million cubic meters a day.
But as preparations lagged, the government opted to build first the most northern leg, recruiting Hebei and neighboring Shanxi province to set aside "back-up" water to supplement river and rain sources.
The scheme has piled most pressure on Hebei, one of the country's most water-short provinces after a decade-long drought, which nonetheless supplies Beijing with about 80 percent of its water.
Hebei ranks near the bottom of China's 31 provinces and province-status cities in water resources per head, with about one eighth of the national average, according to province estimates.
Around Baoding city alone, a mostly rural area criss-crossed by the project, 31,000 residents have lost land and maybe homes for its sake, according to the city water office. Many more have been displaced in other parts of Hebei.
Even in this tightly controlled state where the majority of people are proud to hold the Olympics, Hebei's gripes have echoed in local news reports and the national parliament.
"Conflicts over water between Beijing and Hebei have been chronic," said Liu Changming, a water engineer at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who advised officials about the scheme.
"But there was no other choice. The Olympics are a major national event for China, so sacrifices had to be made."
Wang Junqiang, a ruddy-faced farmer from Xigu Village near Wangkuai Dam, which is part of the scheme, spoke of abandoned fields and lost income.
Two years ago, Wang said, authorities more than tripled the price of water from the dam and she abandoned some of her fields.
"We're too poor to dig our own wells for all the land, and even with the high price of grain, it didn't make sense to grow," she said as she dug corn stalks from stubborn winter earth to use as fuel.
"Of course it affects us. We were poor to start with and now we're poorer".
Farmers across Hebei have received government payments to abandon fields or grow wheat rather than rice or vegetables, but some, including Wang, said they had not received such money.
None of the villagers interviewed denounced the Olympic Games or suggested they should not be held in Beijing. But many seemed stoic rather than proud about their part in ensuring Games visitors enjoy verdant views and glinting waterways.
"I don't know about the Olympics thing. We're just poor ordinary people. I can't even read," Wang said. "We have to make a living before we can think about big things."
In parts of Hebei, discontent about the canal has been sharper, with petitions and protests sometimes delaying work, to judge by official speeches.
In September, a Baoding official said building of bridges across the canal had lagged, and ruined irrigation channels remained unrepaired, angering displaced farmers.
Wages and construction bills for one section of a dam also went unpaid, prompting contractors to protest, Wang Lanfen, a deputy Communist Party secretary of Baoding, said in a speech put on the city water authority Web site (www.bdsl.gov.cn).
Villagers were competing for higher compensation for land lost to the canal, stirring unrest, Wang added, urging "stability before all else".
Last week, Zhang Jiyao, the official in charge of the whole Transfer Project, urged Hebei to quickly resolve problems over land taken for the Olympic project, state media reported.
Most perversely for a scheme intended to defeat incessant drought, engineers sometimes struck underground water that hasty blueprints did not anticipate and then pumped away the obstructing water, drying up nearby wells, according to Wang.
Shi, the herder, said he had extended his family well from a dozen meters below ground to 25 meters after engineers lowered local underground supplies.
"We must ensure water security for Beijing," Shi said, echoing an official slogan daubed on many Baoding village walls. "But we want to be sure we'll get enough too."
With deeper drought threatening much of Hebei, his hope seems far from assured this year. Baoding recently warned in local papers of "extraordinarily severe" water shortfalls.
Xidayang Dam, that supplies the area, appeared short on water even for dry winter months, and officials have ordered emergency transfusions from Wangkuai Dam some 50 km away, which also looked far from full. Yet both dams are also marked to help replenish Beijing.
"Baoding's water shortage has been severe for a decade," said Wei Jianqiang, a city water official who stressed he supported helping Beijing. "But this year is beginning to look especially serious. It's a big test."
Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Brian Rhoads and Nick Macfie