Henan, China – More than five decades ago, an ancient Chinese town surrounded by hills and mountains faced repeated threats from severe drought and famine, but the inhabitants dared to undertake an incredible task that would later benefit generations to come.
Living in Linzhou, a mostly mountainous area in southern Henan Province, central China, was unendurable for locals.
Scores of people were forced to relocate when a severe drought hit between 1942 and 1943 leading to famine.
Over 1,500 people later died of starvation.
The drought had plagued the town, subjecting over two million people to destitution.
Growing food was impossible. The only major water source was about 2,000 kilometers away.
Then, the town decided to dig a canal in order to have access to the river and end the catastrophe.
But such a venture required resilience and human collectivism - the kind that doesn’t happen quite often.
By the beginning of the year 1960, the locals had begun the daunting task - digging an irrigation canal, which would be later named the Red Flag Canal.
The canal is one of the longest hand-made canals in human history.
Over 30,000 local people signed up to manually dig the 1,500 km waterway to have access to the second largest river in the China - the Yellow River.
The Yellow River runs through the northern part of the province, over a thousand miles away from Linzhou.
So, getting access to it from the south, at that time, meant trekking through the Rocky Mountains for months.
Over 86% of the area is covered by mountains, which made it almost an impossible quest for those workers.
After 10 years of hard labor, self-reliance, courage, solidarity and cooperation of the local people, water was available for farming and poverty and starvation soon began to rollback.
It’s now more than 56 years, since the canal was built, but the impact of its irrigation is still very palpable.
Villagers, who are mostly farmers, rely on the water source to grow their crops contributing immensely to the growth of a major agriculture company in the area.
Since the canal was erected, local authorities say, over 8.5 billion cubic meters of water have been diverted from the river to the town irrigating farms and supplying households.
Farmers’ yields have since increased by 1.5 billion kilogram, impacting the socio-economic development of the city.
The Red Flag Canal spirit, as it is dubbed, carries a story indelibly etched on the city’s legacy.
The details have been told and retold for the past decades.
But it still strikes a chord across modern China: The resilience of a group of locals to achieve social development.
China is now a nation proud of its fast growing economy fueled by technological innovation.
But many in Linzhou believe the Red Flag Spirit is worth sharing with the rest of the world and can inspire people’s action of working together.
The government has since declared the city an exemplary of the “Chinese people’s resilience and solidarity”.
A museum was redesigned in 2014 to continue memorializing that audacious generation of workers, some losing their lives in the quest.
It’s now a huge tourists attraction. Before modernizing the museum, the old one had earlier received over 5.5 million visitors in a decade, according to the museum’s records.
A cavern is also preserved in the hills to honor the thousands of youths, who lived there while digging the canal, as a tourist site.
It often receives thousands of young students from across the country. They go there looking for motivation from the past.
When tourists from across the world visit these sceneries, which have been rated the highest level by the government’s tourism authority, they described it as an epitome of “people’s desire to work together for a common good”.
Meanwhile, the city continues to turn its past into a legacy of achievement, motivation and a source of revenue for its economic and social development.
Now, both the Red Flag Canal and the youth carven, as major tourist attractions of the city, generate annual revenue of over US$6 million, the local authorities says, putting the estimated total benefit at over US$260 billion, it says, it has realized in the past 50 years.
With a current growing population of over 1.3 million people, the city boasts a US$7.3 billion GDP although 60% is generated from a thriving modern architectural sector and less than 40% coming from agriculture.
As blossoming as the local economy appears, it is the collectivism of hard work and commitment to curb a massive challenge by a 50-year-ago generation that set the tone for the existing generation to thrive and aspire.