Worst Drought in Half Century Shrivels the Wheat Belt of China
The New York Times, Feb. 26, 2009
QIAOBEI, China -- Northern China is dry in the best of times. But a long rainless stretch has underscored the urgency of water problems in a region that grows three-fifths of China's crops and houses more than two-fifths of its people -- but gets only one-fifth as much rain as the rest of the country.
The current drought, considered the worst in Northern China in at least half a century, is crippling not only the country's best wheat farmland, but also the wells that provide clean water to industry and to millions of people.
In the hamlet of Qiaobei in China's wheat belt, a local farmer, Zheng Songxian, scrapes out a living growing winter wheat on a vest-pocket plot, a third of an acre carved out of a rocky hillside. He might have been expected to celebrate being offered the chance to till new land this winter. He did not.
Normally, the new land he was offered lies under more than 20 feet of water, part of the Luhun Reservoir in Henan Province. But this winter, Luhun has lost most of its water. And what was once lake bottom has become just another field of winter wheat, stunted for want of rain.
Mr. Zheng, 50, stood in his field on a recent winter day, in one hand a shrunken wheat plant freshly pulled from the earth. "I think I'm going to lose at least a third of my harvest this year," he said. "If we don't get rain before May, I won't be able to harvest anything."
Water supplies have been drying up in Northern China for decades, the result of pervasive overuse and waste. Aquifers have been so depleted that in some farming regions, wells probe a half-mile down before striking water.
Until light showers and snow arrived in recent days, much of the region had not seen rain since October. Although the showers reduced the hardest-hit drought area by half, more than 18,000 square miles of farmland remained critically endangered, the Chinese Agriculture Ministry said. About 4.7 million people and 2.5 million head of livestock were said to lack adequate drinking water.
For the Chinese government, already grappling with the fallout from a global economic crisis, this drought is inauspicious. Winter wheat is the nation's second largest crop, behind rice, and a water shortage could raise irrigation costs and cut income for farmers, even as it increased wheat prices for farmers elsewhere in the world.
The drought is peaking as millions of migrant workers rendered jobless by factory closings and construction shutdowns are returning from urban areas to places where farming is the main source of income.
Government officials are clearly concerned by the prospect of rising unrest among jobless migrants, and water shortages and failed crops only heighten those worries.
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited a village in Henan this month, turning a hose on a parched field and telling farmers that help was on the way. The national government increased spending on drought relief by about $44 million and announced plans to speed up the provision of annual grain and farm subsidies worth another $13 billion.
The authorities have opened dam sluices, draining reservoirs like Luhan to irrigate dry fields; dispatched water trucks to thousands of villages with dry wells; and bored hundreds of new wells. Newspapers have breathlessly reported the launching of thousands of rocket shells filled with cigarette-size capsules of silver iodide, purportedly to seduce balky clouds into producing rain.
Drought-stricken Beijing, whose winter snows have all but vanished in the last 25 years, received perhaps three inches of flakes last week, the result, the government said, of its weather modification efforts.
Although Henan produces a quarter of Chinas wheat, the area around Qiaobei is no breadbasket; it is hilly, rocky country where the farm families eat most of what they grow.
Mr. Zheng, who tills the dry reservoir bed, said his wheat was usually a foot tall by mid-February. But this year his field more resembled a suburban lawn in need of mowing, with clumps of wheat barely two inches high.
Irrigation for such a small plot, he said, is too costly. "We have a well up the hill," he said, "but you have to pay 50 yuan every time you pump water, and you need to do it three times before you can harvest." The total of 150 yuan would be more than $20. So Mr. Zheng is hoping for rain, and counting on his two sons and daughter, who have jobs in nearby towns, to make up the money lost from crop failure.
"This doesn't really affect me," he said. "Those poor families whose entire income comes from the land, they have a real problem."
That is apparent in a neighboring village of 1,900, Zhailing, where wells already strained by falling groundwater levels have effectively run dry, and many farmers have written off their wheat.
"Even regular day water is not guaranteed. How can we talk about anything for our crops?" said Shi Shegan, the Communist Party secretary for the village.
The county-level chief of local drought-relief efforts, Gong Xinzhen, is determinedly upbeat about the situation. The county has bought 100 pumps to draw water from streams and wells, he said, and workers have handed out $15,000 worth of plastic bags for citizens to haul water from distant taps. Seven trucks are hauling water to communities like Zhailing where water has run out.
Mr. Shi applauds the government's hard work. But he also notes that when his village was built 14 years ago, one could sink a new well and haul water up by the bucketful. Now, he said, wells sunk 100 feet deep get mere trickles and can be tapped only once or twice a day.
"All of these matters are just for the time being," he said of the government's relief efforts. "How can we solve this problem in the long run? Villagers are getting agitated over the water question."
Zhang Jing contributed research.