No end in sight to prolonged drought in south

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Yang Xue is eight months pregnant yet every day she spends hours ferrying 25-liter drums of water from the village water tank to her thirsty family. The 21-year-old knows she is putting her health and the health of her unborn baby at risk, but she says she has little choice.

A villager gets water from a cave in Fengyan Village of Xingren County, southwest China's Guizhou Province.[Xinhua] 

Her village of Longying in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, one of the poorest areas in South China, has seen just 2.2 mm of rain since October and is suffering its worst drought for 50 years.

Yang descends on the nearby water tank every morning to fill a large drum with water and then carries it home in a basket strapped to her back. Doctors told China Daily the stress from such heavy work could seriously affect her baby's development and potentially induce a premature birth. "I know about the dangers but my family and our livestock need to have water," she said as she wiped sweat from her forehead. "I still hope to give birth to my first child as expected next month."

Since last September, rainfall in Guangxi, as well as neighboring Yunnan and Guizhou provinces, has fallen to the lowest levels since 1952, said the China Meteorological Administration. Coupled with persistent high temperatures, the lack of rain has resulted in a severe drought that is affecting about 11 million people.

In Guangxi's remote Longlin county, officials say 11 reservoirs and 58 rivers have dried up, while villagers at the foot of mountains in the south, such as in Longying, can only rely on the rainwater that was collected in 100-cubic-meter tanks during the last monsoon season.

"The water stored in the tanks does not look healthy but we don't have any other choice," said Yang, who is Miao, the ethnic group that makes up 95 percent of her village.

The water in the tank is light yellow and dried leaves float on the surface. Although county officials insisted the supply is safe to drink after an inspection last month, villagers said they leave the water in jars overnight before drinking it to allow the fine sand to fall to the bottom.

Not only do residents need water to drink, though, their meager supplies must also irrigate their crops - mostly corn and rape - and feed their livestock. Luckily, the tank is topped up with water from an underground river six meters away.

The river was discovered in January by village head Yang Minghe, 60, and is diverted with a pump bought by the De'e township government. However, Yang Minghe said supplies still do not meet the demand.

"Villagers don't have enough water to feed their livestock so they will have to sell them. If their horses, sheep and cattle die because of a lack of water, they will get nothing," he said.

Longying is a scattering of wooden, thatched homes deep in the mountains. The people live in extreme poverty and many are forced to leave their families behind and find work in the industrial cities of neighboring Guangdong province.

Yang Yi, 16, who fetches 25 kg of water four times a day, said her family keeps cows in a ground-floor room in their home to protect them for thieves. The room used to be cleaned once a day but, as they only have enough water for drinking, they cannot wash away the smell.

No end in sight to prolonged drought in south

"The smell is unbearable, but the cows are precious property," said the teenager. "If we don't keep them inside the house, it will be easier for thieves to take them."

"The adverse natural conditions obviously contribute to their poverty," said Zhang Yuanhong, a researcher with the rural development institute under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "Some people are living in subhuman conditions and it would be hard to help them unless local governments relocate them to a more habitable place."

The level of investment it would take to improve living standards in some areas is too great, while it is almost impossible to solve the chronic water shortages, he argued. However, relocating people away from inhospitable villages brings its own challenges. "Some people are not willing to part with their homes. Also, farmland to give to relocated residents is hard to come by," he said.

Longying villager Zhu Debian said no matter how bad things got, he would never agree to move from his hometown.

"Though life here is hard, I will not leave the place where I was born," said the 25-year-old. However, he admitted he will leave to work at an electrical factory in Guangdong when the drought eases. "Technically, local governments should pay for the infrastructure in rural areas but some poor regions need help from the central government, especially with transport links, and power and water supplies. These are all vital and people cannot work without them."

The Yunnan provincial authorities have spent more than 1.6 billion yuan ($230 million) on drought relief since last October. As of March 8, Guangxi has also invested about 20 million yuan. Projects have included shipping water to those in desperate need and building new water sources. However, the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Civil Affairs have allocated a total of just 50 million yuan toward alleviating the disaster.

The drought proves the central authorities have, until now, paid little attention to water conservation projects, said Bai Enpei, governor of Yunnan and deputy to the National People's Congress, during a press conference on March 8. He pledged to build more permanent water sources, as well as improve temporary sources to boost drinking water supplies in the long term.

Villagers will also be able to recoup their losses from the drought through special work programs that will take them to East China, he said.

In Hechi, a city 350 km from Guangxi's capital, Nanning, officials are instigating ambitious tree-planting projects as part of a long-term strategy to combat drought conditions.

"To provide villagers enough water is the most important target," said Meng Yuguang, vice-chairman of the city's people's political consultative committee. "However, finding ways to maintain water for them is a more crucial task."

The city's water sources bureau will launch a campaign to find more water sources in the mountains, as well as build extra water tanks, he said. Also, the forestry bureau will plant trees on more than 2 hectares of hills in three to five years. As of Feb 21, about 100,000 fir and pine trees were planted, said Meng.

Officials say trees will help store moisture during the monsoon season to improve atmospheric circulation, thereby gradually changing the local climate.

Planting trees is not a short-term measure, however, and although residents welcome the move, they said what they need right now is water.

Wenqian, a village with 1,000 residents in the Bama Yao autonomous county, is 45 km from Cifuhu, the nearest reservoir. The community is one of several that has received 15 tons of water from Hechi government every three days for more than a month since January.

Residents did not have any water tanks until the local authorities started to build them in January, four months after the drought began.

On average, one person needs 2 liters of water to drink every day, say health experts, but officials estimate each family needs at least 40 liters for washing and for their livestock. This means the water that was shipped in only met the demand of 200 people, less than 20 percent of Wenqian's population. The rest of the villagers had to find water for themselves, said a Wenqian resident who did not want to be identified. He also complained that the water tanks should have been built much earlier.

Yunnan governor Bai predicted that the drought will end in May when the rainy season arrives. However, it will take more than heavy showers to help residents get back to normal.

Lan Guijiang, 40, of Wenqian, raised two pigs last year and sold each for about 1,200 yuan - but that was when the family had enough grain to go around, he said.

The farmer planted his corn last week but the seedlings have still not come out, he said. If he does not harvest enough food in three months, his family faces the prospect of spending much more money on food next year. "We're looking at a meager harvest this year," said Lan, who fears the situation means many people will be forced to put their livestock up for sale earlier, driving down prices. "If the drought does not end soon, I will have to sell my pigs for much less than I need to."

The average income in Wenqian is just 1,000 yuan, less than 25 percent of average farmers' income in China in 2008.

Officials at the Bama Yao county agriculture bureau said they are attempting to cultivate corn seedlings in a greenhouse. When it rains, the seedlings will be transplanted to farmland. The project can produce 42,000 seedlings for 1 hectare in half a month, said Wei Yihong, an expert with the bureau. "Compared with 3 hectares of dry farmland, we can grow only a small quantity of the seedlings, but we must do best to mitigate the financial costs of the drought," he said.

As of Mar 9, 23 army planes had carried out 818 weather modification operations to ease the drought in Guangxi, Yunnan, Guizhou and Chongqing. The missions resulted in 1 to 4 mm of rainfall in the affected areas, according to China Meteorological Administration.

The dry conditions have also increased the danger of forest fires. So far, there have been 263 blazes around Baise, the prefecture-level city that administers Longlin. Two people have been killed and 633 hectares of woodland destroying, said municipal officials on March 6.

Although the weather plays a large part in these incidents, Wei Congke, deputy chief of Longlin county government, said the local Miao tradition of burning trees before planting seeds in spring has the potential for catastrophe.

"It is hard to stop people from doing it because it is a very old tradition, so officials and the fire department need to be on full alert ahead of planting season," he said.

On the road approaching Donggou, a Miao village, there were more than five patches of grassy land that had been burned by locals. Officials in nearby Zhuchang town said the fires could have easily spread to connecting woodland.

Homes here are traditionally made out of fir trees and, as most men leave for jobs in Guangdong shortly after Spring Festival, the village is extremely vulnerable to the threat of fires.

"Security is our top priority," said Xiong Jinlong, 34, the village chief. "We can survive without making much money but without our homes it would be impossible."

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