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China's dustbowl nightmare

Farmers urged to save every drop of water as the worst drought in a decade takes hold.

Special report: China

John Gittings in Kaifeng Wednesday June 13, 2001 The Guardian

Millions of Chinese farmers have been warned to "save every drop of water" as drought spreads across the country. Experts at the national headquarters for flood prevention and drought control say it is "the most severe and widespread" since 1990.

Wen Jiabao, a senior government minister, has called for a war against the drought, which affects more than 20 provinces and has already lasted three months. Lack of water is preventing huge tracts of land being farmed and Beijing is afraid that the problem will grow in the coming years.

Evidence of the crisis can be seen clearly from the Kaifeng dyke, overlooking the Yellow river in Henan, one of the worst affected provinces. The river has been reduced to a shallow expanse of water. Only the smallest boats can cross it.

Further downstream, the river has dried up completely several times in recent years and it is likely to do so again. The Wei river has also dried up, as has the Red Flag canal, cut through rock by Red Guard volunteers in the 1960s.

The drought has affected more than a million people in Henan and 280,000 head of livestock. Swarms of locusts have been reported in 15 provinces.

It may take farmers in eastern Henan some time to understand the message. They remember vividly how floods once killed hundreds of thousands and buried villages and temples.

After their victory in 1949, the communists in Beijing focused on flood prevention. "Life is better now that we no longer fear the great flood," a fisherman on the Yellow river dyke said.

Moreover, the lack of rain helped this year's first wheat harvest, which ripened in the uninterrupted sun and is now being gathered in abundance.


Farmers in this area rely mostly on underground water, and although the water table has fallen significantly in the past 10 years in parts of northern China it is hard to convince farmers to save water as long as it can still be pumped up.

Rainfall in the spring was down by between 30% and 90% in many parts of China. Sand-laden winds from the expanding inland deserts have badly affected the north.

Wang Shaowu, a climatologist at Beijing University, says summer drought in north China should now be regarded as normal.

"In fact, the drought may be just beginning," he said last week. The people of China should be "prepared psychologically" for a new era of drought.

Drought is affecting the north and west while central and north-east China are recovering from devastating floods. The causes of both crises are similar: silting up of riverbeds, waste, excessive extraction and deterioration of the environment.

The problem is made worse by the lack of central authority for water management. Control along the Yellow river is shared between the ministry of water resources (MWR), the Yellow river control commission, and the downstream provinces which often ignore quotas set from above.

In April the MWR warned that around 50m people now faced water shortages and that the situation would continue to deteriorate, reaching a peak after 2010.

The World Bank has financed the huge Xiaolangdi hydroelectric dam near Luoyang in Henan, which is now coming into operation.

The downstream provinces also support an ambitious national scheme to divert water from the Yangtze to the north.

However most experts believe that the only real solution lies in improving the environment and imposing water charges to discourage waste.

"Human activity is the main cause of the problems," an assessment in 1999 by the Chinese Academy of Sciences declared. "The present-day water consumption is far beyond the [Yellow] river's resources.",7369,506011,00.html

-- Martin Thompson (, June 13, 2001


China: Drought Prevents Planting of 1.53 Million Ha Rice June 13, 2001

BEIJING--Prolonged drought has prevented the planting of at least 4.26 million hectares of farm land, including 1.53 million ha of rice, in northern and northwestern China, Asiaport Daily News reported on June 11.

Seeds never germinated at all on about 730,000 ha of land, and there was no harvest on another 8.9 million ha. The drought is affecting more than 23 million hectares of non-irrigated farmland in Liaoning, Hebei, Henan, Shandong, Shaanxi, Inner Mongolia, and other provinces, according to sources with the National Headquarters for Fighting Against Floods and Drought. The drought is affecting some 30.4 million people, the China Daily reports.

In Shaanxi Province, wheat yields had decreased to only half the usuall, Professor Han Siming of Northwest Agricultural University told the China Daily last week.

China's Ministry of Agriculture would not predict whether the drought will affect the import and export of grain and other agricultural products this year.

The drought, which has now lasted for about 100 days, has caused a shortage of drinking water, which also threatens the lives of 15.8 million people.

Local governments have called on people to conserve water, and have allocated 3 billion yuen (US$363 million) to the anti-drought drive.

-- Martin Thompson (, June 14, 2001.

Wetlands Running Dry in China

Drought Erodes an Ancient Way of Life in Mythic Marshes

By Philip P. Pan Washington Post Foreign Service Sunday, July 1, 2001; Page A14

BAIYANGDIAN, China -- China is suffering its worst drought in more than two decades, with crops in huge tracts of the north and southwest withering in parched fields, cities imposing emergency restrictions on water use and rivers becoming dusty gullies.

The drought, which stretches across 17 provinces and has lasted more than 100 days, has left 23 million people short of drinking water and damaged more than 73 million acres of farmland. Herds of cattle and sheep are dying of dehydration, and peasants are abandoning their land to search for work in factories and mines.

Fearful of social unrest, the government has fired chemicals into the skies to seed the clouds and cause rainfall. It has also mobilized millions of workers to dig deeper wells and distribute bottled water to the hardest-hit regions. In a special session in June, the State Council ordered local officials to guarantee the water supply for cities first and drafted plans to divert rivers if necessary.

The drought is the latest manifestation of a water crisis that has been building for decades and has become severe in the past few years. China has about as much water as Canada but 40 times more people, and demand for water is soaring as cities grow, industry expands and living standards rise. Reckless economic development, low water prices and poor planning have exacerbated the problem.

Here in the Baiyangdian marshes, northern China's largest freshwater lake system and the setting of countless folk tales and poems, the water shortage threatens an ancient landscape and way of life.

Baiyangdian is still blessed with a natural symphony, the croak of frogs and buzz of insects mingling with the calls of cuckoos, wild ducks and pheasants. But for the fifth summer in a row, these once- majestic wetlands 70 miles south of Beijing are drier than they are wet.

The roots of reeds stick out of exposed, muddy banks like the wiring of broken machines. Water levels are nearly seven feet below normal, rendering many of the docks on the scattered islands useless. Wooden boats sit stranded in stinking ditches that once were sparkling waterways.

Struggling to adapt are people such as Chen Changdai, 64, a fisherman who sets out each morning on a small punt with eight black cormorants -- birds trained to dive into the water, snatch fish in their bills and bring them back to him. For centuries, if not millennia, men like Chen have been using the large, web-footed birds to fish, fastening rings of straw around their necks to prevent them from swallowing the catch.

But Chen is among the last of Baiyangdian's cormorant fishermen. "The water is disappearing, and so are the fish," he said, gliding through the green reeds and lotus flowers.

Water is disappearing elsewhere, too. More than half of China's 700 cities suffer chronic shortages, causing $15 billion in lost industrial output every year, according to government statistics. And the supplies that remain are getting dirtier, contaminated by industrial waste, urban sewage and chemical fertilizers. China's rivers and lakes are all polluted to some degree; half the population drinks contaminated water, Chinese scientists say.

The crisis is most severe in northern China, where so much water is drawn from the Yellow River that it fails to reach the Bo Hai gulf several months each year. China plans to spend tens of billions of dollars building huge tunnels and aqueducts to take water from the south and channel it hundreds of miles to the north, but the mammoth project could take decades to complete.

Meanwhile, clashes over water are becoming increasingly common. Last summer, thousands of farmers in Shandong province rioted when officials tried to block access to a reservoir. This summer could be worse. Human rights groups have reported incidents of peasants protesting against paying taxes because the drought has ruined their crops, or against fees designed to keep them from moving to the cities.

Here in the Baiyangdian region, though, there is only quiet resignation among people who feel powerless to stop the drying up of lakes where the Qing emperor Qianlong once went fishing.

A local Communist Party secretary, Gao Jianpo, insists that Baiyangdian's problems are temporary and minor, part of nature's cyclical ebb and flow. But the villagers say something else is happening, and the experts say they are right.

"This isn't just a natural phenomenon. It has more to do with mankind," said Liu Changming, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, adding that less water reaches Baiyangdian because the cities, factories and farms upriver are using more. "And when there's a drought, people use even more water."

In the 1950s, the lakes of Baiyangdian covered more than 310 square miles. Today, local officials say 186 square miles remain under water; Liu puts the figure closer to 44 square miles.

But local officials still brag about Baiyangdian to investors looking for reliable water supplies for factories, and reservoirs siphon off water from all nine of the rivers that flow here. When rainfall is heavy, the government sometimes releases water from the reservoirs and publishes articles describing how Baiyangdian has recovered.

Another problem is pollution. In February 2000 and again in December, tens of thousands of dead fish were found floating on the lakes, apparently victims of toxic discharges from paper mills and chemical factories. Fishermen said they received "pollution relief" payments as compensation, but Gao, the local official, declined to discuss the subject.

"We should talk less about this," he said, steering the conversation to tourism.

In Beijing, environmental officials acknowledge the Baiyangdian lakes are among the most polluted in China. One government study in the mid- 1990s discovered liver and esophageal cancer rates in the villages around Baiyangdian that were three times higher than those of villages with cleaner water supplies.

The government has tried to save Baiyangdian, partly because it is so well known. All Chinese schoolchildren read an essay about how villagers here waged a guerrilla war against the Japanese during World War II, hiding in the complex network of waterways and moving underwater by breathing through straws.

As early as 1972, Premier Zhou Enlai called a special meeting to protect Baiyangdian. There have been many more meetings since, and the government says it has shut down hundreds of paper mills, tanneries, dye factories and oil refineries and spent millions building waste-treatment facilities around the lake.

But, according to Liu, 80 to 90 percent of the wastewater from the cities and farms upstream still is not treated before it flows into Baiyangdian. And because there is less water in the lakes, the pollution has a greater effect.

The lack of water and its declining quality mean the reeds are growing shorter, making it more difficult for villagers to weave the mats they export to Japan. Even Baiyangdian's duck eggs, known for their red yolks, are losing that special characteristic.

"There's not enough in the water for the ducks to eat," complained Xia Huitian, 24, tending his flock of 2,000 ducks.

Perhaps the fishermen and their cormorants have it worst.

"Mandarin fish, blunt-snout bream, yellow croaker," said fisherman Chen Enpo, 67, listing some of the species that have disappeared. "There are fewer fish now, and fewer kinds of fish too. . . . On bad days, we don't catch any at all."

So the cormorant fishermen are fading from Baiyangdian, too. They are all old men now, and none of their children has chosen to learn the trade.

"They can't support themselves doing it. . . . If there's no water, how can there be fish?" asked Chen Changdai, whose two sons make a living on the land. "It's hard to take. . . . I remember as a boy I used to swim in the lake and drink the water, and it tasted sweet."

2001 The Washington Post Company

-- Martin Thompson (, July 01, 2001.

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