Mao Zedong's ill-conceived plan half a century ago to build a dam to cut the flow of the Yellow River not only sowed the seeds of persistent floods in Weinan, Shaanxi , but also gave local officials many chances to embezzle relief funds. In 1956, Mao decided, with the help of former Soviet experts, to build the Sanmenxia Reservoir to prevent flooding and provide hydroelectricity and water for irrigation. Mao said the project could benefit 200 million people in Shaanxi, Shanxi , Henan , Shandong , Anhui and Jiangsu . About 67,000 hectares, including more than 53,000 hectares of productive farmland, was submerged in Shaanxi, where 410,000 villagers were relocated, with 287,000 coming from Weinan. But, the 4 billion yuan project was a failure and instead intensified flooding in Huayin, a county-level city under Weinan, where the Wei River - a tributary of the Yellow River - flowed backwards because its river bed was raised by more than 5 metres. In the 1960s, the central government scaled back the project. Since the mid-1980s, 73,965 villagers have been allowed to return to Huayin. The central government allocated 3 billion yuan in relief funds to pay for their relocation and assigned 20,800 hectares of farmland for the villagers. But the money and land did not bring relief to the villagers, it simply created profiteering opportunities. Li Jixin , a retired leader in Weinan, is convinced cadres in Weinan and Huayin had misappropriated relief funds in the past two decades. 'As far as I know, the central government allocated at least 2.5 billion yuan to Shaanxi to help house relocated villagers in the past 20 years. But very little money was spent on relocation and other related projects,' Mr Li said. He said Weinan officials had exaggerated the number of relocated villagers when they asked Beijing for funds in 1985's mass return migration campaign. 'The central government was told Huayin would take 150,000 people but the fact was only 73,965 villagers returned,' Mr Li said. 'Officials looted the rest of the money.' Li Wanming , head of the Weinan Relocation Bureau's trade union since 1985, said he feared much of the misappropriated funds had been lost in bad investments. 'Officials in provincial and municipal government departments have embezzled millions of yuan and spent the money on all sorts of investment - nightclubs, farms, factories, oil wells and even in the form of private loans,' he said. 'The most serious problem is they lost much of the money and nobody has been charged so far.' Mr Li said more than 10,000 hectares of farmland that was supposed to have been returned to the villagers was still occupied by local government bodies and officials. A flood in the summer of 2003 - and more allegations of embezzlement of relief money - further inflamed the villagers. To save Weinan and Huayin three years ago, the authorities decided to blow up dykes and flood 11 villages under Huayin. Local officials promised 3,474 displaced families that they would be compensated. But villagers say those promises had not been realised. Shi Xiangxue , 60, a retired worker from a state-owned electricity company in Luoxi Village, said he still remembered how officials persuaded them to leave. 'They knew it would be a nightmare because we all had the terrible experience of being forced to leave when the Sanmenxia project was built in the 1950s,' he said. 'We were very angry about our officials' failure to keep their word. And we were also annoyed at their embezzlement of our relief funds.' Li Jixin said Premier Wen Jiabao set aside 590.6 million yuan in 'emergency relief funds' for the 3,474 families after an inspection trip in October 2003. 'Premier Wen stressed that the money must be used on relief work and each family should receive 17,000 yuan,' Mr Li said. 'According to an official circular, the 17,000 yuan was divided into 15,000 yuan for rebuilding houses and 2,000 yuan on public facilities.' Zhang Jianping , 38, said villagers had lost patience. 'We've decided to rebuild our homes ourselves because we don't want to live in vulnerable houses this winter.' He said local officials said they would only pay them if they agreed to move their houses far away from their farmland. 'But my land is here. If it took an eight-hour round trip for us to get there, how could I cultivate my crops?' Wang Lihong , Mr Zhang's 32-year-old neighbour, also refused to move, although her house was so dilapidated that the roof would have collapsed had she not supported it with big logs. 'Police say my house is not dangerous because it has not collapsed yet,' Ms Wang said. 'My husband and I know the house is not safe, but we have no money to repair it.' Ms Wang's husband plans to seek work in a city to raise money to fix the house. 'We don't want to move because this is our land and my kid goes to school here,' she said. 'We have never thought about relying on the county government because the officials did not even let us know about the relief fund given to us by the central government until we sent our representatives to Beijing to protest in late 2004.' One village representative, Dong Shenxin , said few villagers would agree to move because they feared the land they were given was prone to flooding. Ms Wang said flooding was almost like a curse to villagers who lived near the Wei River. 'I got married in 1996,' she said. 'Since then, we've had to run away from floods three times. Every time we came back, our house was ruined and we lost all our furniture.' For the past three years, Mr Li has written many letters to the central government and the media urging investigations. His persistence did draw the attention of the central government and some mainland media. When they came to investigate, journalists from Beijing were shocked to find villagers still camping out in tents and half-ruined houses three years after the 2003 summer flood. In January, the National Development and Reform Commission sent a team to investigate and found local officials had spent only a fraction of the relief funds allocated by the central government and much of the money remained in banks. But local officials said the delay was due to the 'unco-operative attitude' of the villagers and insisted that money should only be paid out for relocation and not helping the villagers repair their houses. The commission concluded the officials had handled the problem badly but no cadres were punished. In late August and early last month, China Central Television (CCTV) aired a three-part programme criticising local officials' 'backward thinking' and bureaucratic attitude. Instead of looking for remedies, Huayin responded by tearing down the tents and flood-ruined houses shown in the TV programme and moving the displaced villagers into a flood holding centre. The villagers said they were moved to prevent them from speaking to the press again.