A villager patrols the Gaoliu canal in Shengji town, Bijie, Guizhou province, in September. CHEN XI/FOR CHINA DAILY More than 60 years ago, villagers in Gaoliu, Guizhou province, used to peer down from their hillside homes and recite a sarcastic ditty about how they were hungry and thirsty but couldn't reach the large river below. It took them five hours on foot to travel from their village in Shengji town, Bijie, to fetch water from the Chishui River, the sheer karst cliff making the journey perilous. But 56 years ago, the villagers completed an engineering marvel, cutting a canal out of the raw rock that has helped bring mountain water and prosperity to their home. Today, the canal helps irrigate about 166 hectares of farmland and provides drinking water for 3,200 villagers. Xu Wujun, 39, uses water from the canal, which his father helped build, to grow oranges and plums. Annual profits of 30,000 yuan ($4,580) from fruit sales support his teenage son and daughter. "Due to proper maintenance, the canal has performed its function well since its completion decades ago, so villagers here still use it for irrigation," he said. Xu said villagers had learned how to plant oranges from growers in Sichuan province in the 1970s, nearly a decade after the canal's completion. Gaoliu villagers clear the canal during a regular patrol in September. CHEN XI/FOR CHINA DAILY High on a hill Before the canal was built, the scarcity of drinking water forced villagers to collect rainwater in wash basins or scoop it from muddy ponds, which often caused diarrhea. In 1958, desperate for potable water, villagers made up their minds to find a reliable source of clean water. About 40 villagers volunteered to do the work and spent six years building a 6-kilometer canal, according to the local government. About 1.8 km of the canal snakes along a karst cliff up to a mountain water source. The job was dangerous. In some difficult-to-access sections, workers dangled from ropes and used hammers and drills to dig the canal along the cliff, centimeter by centimeter. They also dug holes to detonate explosives for a tunnel that the canal passes through. Three people died during the construction work, hit by rocks or falling off the cliff. Xu Guangfu, 82, who took part in the canal building with Xu Wujun's father, said they slept in caves on thatch mats for long periods so they could stay on-site and reduce construction time. "We never thought of leaving the place because our ancestors have lived here for generations. We believed we could make it," he said. Cut out of the rock, the Gaoliu canal has been considered an engineering wonder. CHEN XI/FOR CHINA DAILY Bearing fruit In 2015, Xu Wujun returned to Gaoliu from Chaozhou, Guangdong province, where he worked in a hardware factory for nine years, to start a fruit plantation. He said he quit his factory job because he couldn't advance his position as he only studied until middle school. "Fruit production in my village has increased in recent years as farmers have become increasingly skillful at planting. I saw an opportunity in farming and chose to return home," Xu said. "Now I can earn a living and take care of my parents in my hometown. The canal offers both drinking water and a path to wealth for us villagers. My father's generation really did a great job." He said he was moved to tears every time his 83-year-old father told him stories about how they built the canal. "During the years of construction, he worked on the mountain day and night. I would barely see him, even during Spring Festival," Xu said. Not only Gaoliu residents but all the villagers in Shengji had to overcome the challenges of the mountainous terrain to find water. According to the Bijie water resources bureau, since the 1950s, people in Shengji have dug 10 canals, including the Gaoliu one, with a total distance of about 100 km. The local government said it plans to plant 1,067 hectares of plums and 667 hectares of oranges to boost revenue for the villagers. Wang Jin contributed to this story.