Spring Harvest of Debt for Parched Farms in Southern China
Ariana Lindquist for The New York Times
Published: April 4, 2010
WANGZHI, China — Odds are that the drought that is parching southwest China’s Yunnan Province and its neighbors will break sometime in the next month, as the region’s usually dry winter gives way to an abundance of summer rains.
The New York Times
But Huang Jianxue, already weathered at 37 from years in the fields, has stopped betting on rain. In a normal year, his plot of winter wheat brings perhaps $585. This year, he said, it will be lucky to sell for $30.
“It’s only good for the pigs,” he said, brushing perhaps six or eight wheat kernels from a stunted stalk that, in a normal year, would hold dozens. “After this, if it doesn’t rain by May, I will plant nothing this year.”
This drought is southern China’s worst, climatologists say, in 80 to 100 years. From Yunnan eastward through Sichuan and Guizhou Provinces and the Guangxi region, the soil on roughly 30,000 square miles of farmland is too dry to plant crops, the vice minister of water resources, Liu Ning, said last Wednesday. Around 24 million people are short of water. Agricultural losses already total $3.5 billion.
Many areas have not had rain since at least October. Here in Luliang County, about 70 miles east of Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, no rain has fallen since August. The drought’s effects have also reached beyond China, stirring up tensions with its neighbors over energy and environmental concerns.
For those like Mr. Huang whose crops and animals are starved for water, the suffering is palpable. Already he has had to borrow money to send his 7-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter to school. Looking for work in the city is out of the question, he said; he cannot read, and leaving his family would wipe out any chance to plant crops should the rains return.
With virtually no money from the spring harvest, he said, his only plan to repay his debt is to kill the family pig and sell the meat.
Across parts of the region, the government is rationing drinking water to millions, digging 1,600 emergency wells and shooting silver iodide into the air in a marginally successful rainmaking effort. In mid-March, China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, made a three-day tour of Yunnan, including Luliang County, to pledge government help and urge new water-conservation efforts.
Government officials say reaction to the drought has been swift, and they denied that there had been an exodus of farmers from parched cropland to the cities, where they could search for jobs. Hong Kong’s major newspaper, The South China Morning Post, reported last month that many adults had left villages in Guangxi, and that many of those who remained behind were elderly residents and children who had difficulty finding drinking water.
A several-hour tour of Luliang County last Monday suggested the drought had struck in patchwork fashion. Residents said some reservoirs were dry basins of cracked mud, while others could be seen filled with water and surrounded by green crops.
In Shizikou, a village Mr. Wen visited on his tour of drought sites, verdant acres of rapeseed plants and other crops lined a dirty-looking river that had been tapped for irrigation. But yards away from the river, 44-year-old Liu Hong said her entire wheat crop had grown only about a foot high before dying for lack of water, wiping out the $440 she had hoped to earn.
Ms. Liu said she had been forced to borrow more than $700 from a local bank to send her two sons to high school. “I don’t know what will happen if I can’t repay it,” she said.
And just down the road, 38-year-old Zhang Weixing’s crop of wendou, a type of pea used to make noodles, was so shrunken that his family was harvesting it to use as seeds rather than food. A crop that brought $440 in a normal year would be lucky to fetch $15 this time, he said.
Serious as the dry spell is, it affects only about 6 percent of China’s farmland and a tiny portion of its 1.3 billion people. Government officials say that its impact on inflation and food supplies is expected to be minimal.
But it has drawn unusually pointed comments among some scholars and China’s neighbors over whether official land- and water-conservation practices have contributed to the shortage.
Meeting in Thailand last week, China’s southern neighbors sharply questioned whether the drought’s effect on the Mekong River — at its lowest in a half-century — had been worsened by dams along its upper reaches, known as the Lancang, in western Yunnan.
The hydroelectric dams store water that otherwise would flow naturally in wet and dry seasons. The Chinese deny the charge and say that they released dammed water during this dry season to raise the Mekong’s level.
Environmentalists have raised other questions in the drought’s wake. Wang Yongchen, the senior environmental writer for China National Radio, asked in a March journal article in Beijing whether the reservoirs and rapid industrialization had permanently changed the climate in Yunnan. She said that the wholesale replacement of Yunnan’s forests with plantations — especially thirsty rubber and eucalyptus trees — may have lowered the region’s water table, dried the atmosphere and worsened water shortages.
A blunt editorial last week in The South China Morning Post said that China, which has more than a fifth of the world’s population but only 7 percent of its fresh water, had mismanaged its vast system of 87,000 reservoirs, 43 percent of which it said were in poor condition.
In Wangzhi, Mr. Huang, the farmer, offered personal evidence of the falling water table: the well that supplies his family normally has 33 feet of water during the dry season. On Monday, he said, it held barely a foot.
“We have almost no drinking water left,” he said. “There are 30 other wells in this area, and all the others are dry. I am the only one with anything left.”