Crops and lifestyle withering in dry spell

08:25, February 16, 2011      

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Farmers pump water from a well to irrigate their wheat crops in Yuncheng county, Shandong province, last week. Zhang Tao / China Daily

Farmers try to beat drought but traditional ways endangered by more than just weather, Cao Li and Zhao Ruixue report in Shandong.

Snow falls quietly on parched wheat fields as electric generators roar to bring water from far away. Li Guangxue waits anxiously for water to arrive on his 3-mu (0.2-hectare) plot in the high-altitude fields of Wucun township in Shandong province.

"The wheat crops have had no water since they were sown. The damage is already done and the snow came too late and was too light," says Li, a 49-year-old farmer whose bronzed face bears testimony to a lifetime working the land of hilly Qufu, where he lives.

He picks up a wheat plant with a shriveled root. "This is the worst drought I have ever seen."

There's more at risk than withering plants and a harvest that helps feed millions. A way of life is withering, too, as the costs of farming increase and the natural resources critical to farming are diverted to other uses.

Even after watering with the imported water, Li predicts a decline of 150 kilograms per mu in the harvest, which in a good year yields 500 kg. He expects to make about one-third of his usual profit, counting the investment in watering equipments.

Li is just one of millions of farmers in northern China who are seeing their wheat plants wither in the most severe drought to hit the region in six decades. And no effective precipitation is forecast for the near future.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, more than half of the 14 million hectares of wheat fields in eight provinces, from Shandong to Gansu, have been affected. Henan, Anhui and Hebei provinces have been hit badly. More than 2.8 million farmers and 2.5 million livestock feel the lack of drinking water.

Analysts expect the wheat harvest to decline by 2 million to 10 million tons this year; the 2010 harvest totaled 113 million tons. The drought is ramping up the price of wheat, which is having an impact both domestically and abroad, according to a report from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. The national average retail price of wheat flour in China was 4.42 yuan (66 cents) a kilogram in August and 4.8 yuan on Feb 4, a rise of 8.6 percent.

Can't wait for nature

Every village is mobilized to save the wheat. Li's town, which has relied on farming for generations, is just one of them. "I started farming when I was in the womb," he said.

Qufu is experiencing its worst drought in 200 years. And Wucun town has no nearby reservoirs, natural lakes or abundant underground water.

Qiao Guijun, the governor of Wucun, was busy on Sunday instructing workers to set up more electric generators and pipes. "We are piping water from three water resources 3 to 5 kilometers away and digging tunnels to divert more. We can't wait for the mercy of nature any more." The township government has spent more than 1 million yuan ($151,000) since November.

Nearly half of the town's 45.5-hectare wheat fields had been watered by Sunday.

Li Guangxue purchased plastic pipes to divert water to his land and diesel fuel to power generators. "The plastic pipe is much more expensive than last year," he said. He has spent about 800 yuan fighting the drought this season.

In a neighboring field, 60-year-old Kong Fanyou operated a newly purchased electric generator. He paid 1,000 yuan for it. "If I don't water the plants now, there will be no harvest at all."

For some farmers, equipment to combat the drought is costing more than their annual income. But there is help. In Yuncheng county, in Heze city, electrical engineer Diao Zhaochang stood at the entrance of Hehai village, waiting for calls to power the water piping. "We will generate electricity for whoever needs to water their wheat fields," Diao said.

Although Heze, the region's major wheat producer, sits on the northern bank of the Yellow River, it is limited in its use of the resource. The riverbed in some places has dropped, and limits on withdrawals have been imposed. Locals said that villagers dig wells every day to find new water sources for the thirsty crops.

Many officials say the drought will not have a lasting impact on production because more wheat has been planted for this year. But drought could be an ongoing problem.

By Cao Li and Zhao Ruixue, China Daily
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