Millions facing starvation as drought shrivels crops in wide swath of Asia

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MANILA BULLETIN: http://www.mb.com.ph/OPED/2001-07/OE070907.asp

Millions facing starvation as drought shrivels crops in wide swath of Asia

By MARTIN FACKLER Associated Press Writer DALANYINGZI, China - The wheat should be waist-high by now, but Yu Zhijun must bend down below his knees to grab the brittle yellow stalks. His crop withered when spring rains failed to come to Dalanyingzi, a village surrounded by wheat and corn fields in China's northeastern province of Liaoning. With his large thumb, Yu exposed a shriveled kernel the size of tear drop.

"It's useless for market. You can't sell something that looks like this," Yu said.

From the Korean peninsula through northern China and on to Afghanistan, record droughts have destroyed crops and plunged tens of millions of people deeper into poverty.

The United Nations says 5 million people face starvation in Afghanistan and neighboring Tajikistan alone. China's lack of rainfall has dried out farmland the size of Italy and fed massive dust storms. Bad harvests in North Korea have forced the closed communist country to warm up to the West in exchange for food aid.

The droughts have struck a continent that already was seeing fierce competition for water to supply expanding populations and rapid economic growth as supplies from polluted rivers and wells dwindled.

Scientists say Asia's droughts are linked as warmer global temperatures push weather patterns northward, driving rain clouds away from an already arid stretch of the continent.

"Northern China sits on a fragile climate belt that also includes central and western Asia," said Ding Yihui, a researcher at China's national weather institute. "The higher temperatures are further worsening the situation."

In India, water is so scarce in the northwestern state of Rajasthan that farmers are trading away precious livestock just to stay alive. One goat buys four earthen pots of water, each the size of a small trash can.

In the village of Sam, women wait for a relief truck that brings water once every three days. Others walk 12 miles (20 kilometers) to fill saddlebags from wells that are almost dry.

"What should we do?" asked Murad Khan, 69, of Danana village.

"Our animals are dying daily. If water is not there, there is no life."

Afghanistan is suffering its worst drought on record. Desperate residents in the capital, Kabul, dug more than 166 new wells last year. Each must be deeper than the last as the water table drops at a rate of 16 feet (five meters) a year.

In the village of Shah Kabul, 35 miles (55 kilometers) to the west of the capital, apple orchards are barren and potato fields cracked and dry.

The bellies of many village children are bloated from lack of food. Half of the 250 homes have been abandoned by villagers joining an exodus of refugees from drought and civil war into neighboring Iran or Pakistan.

"Many people have left and more are leaving. This winter is our last hope for rain and snow," said Salim Shah, a villager who said he was struggling to provide for a family of 10. "If we don't get water, then we will all have to leave."

Many end up in camps like the six run by the United Nations in Herat, near Afghanistan's border with Iran. The largest, Maslakh, has run out of tents. The 2,000 people who straggle in each day after walking as long as two weeks must sleep in the open with no water and little food.

The United Nations says a half-million people live in such camps, and warns that 4 million Afghans face starvation.

A million more people could starve in Tajikistan, where drought has destroyed half the wheat harvest, the United Nations says. The country's president has appealed to the world for emergency supplies like grain, cooking oil and meat.

In Mongolia, 5 million cattle, sheep and horses have died from two straight years of summer drought and harsh winters. Their herds wiped out, nomadic families are migrating to cities where tent slums have sprung up.

The dry spell threatens North Korea with its sixth straight year of famine. State media report that rainfall just a tenth of normal has left hundreds of thousands of acres shriveled. Bad weather and mismanagement killed as many as 2 million North Koreans in the worst famines of 1995-1998.

In China, the government says 23 million people don't have enough drinking water.

Rains in late June came in time to save the corn crop in Dalanyingzi village, though the stunted plants will produce only half their normal yield.

Yu Zhijun said drought damage will cost him almost two-thirds of his annual income of about 3,000 yuan, or $350.

That means he won't be able to afford rice for his family. They will have to make do with crude noodles made themselves after picking out edible grains from the ruined wheat crop.

At an outdoor market in the nearby village of Songzhuangzi, Gao Xiuli sells sacks of cabbage, spinach and other seeds on a blanket spread on the ground.

For months while the drought raged, no one bought her seeds. She ate vegetables she grew herself with water left over from washing her face and cleaning the dishes.

"I grew up on a farm so I know how to feed myself," she said.

"But we have this problem every year."

Copyright 1999 Manila Bulletin

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), July 08, 2001


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