ZHENGZHOU, CHINA // On the streets of Henan's capital, Zhengzhou, massive tanker lorries spray water on the road, the bushes are sprightly and green and sprinklers tick in the public gardens. A few kilometres out of town, near the banks of the Yellow River, central China's largest vegetable market is conducting a roaring trade in produce sourced mainly from the south.
There is little here to indicate that the province - long considered China's breadbasket - is suffering its worst drought in half a century. But about 150 kilometres away, in the dusty foothills south of the industrial town of Gongyi, farmers Xi Guo Jun and He Hong Pu are facing the total loss of their winter wheat harvest. Their entire rapeseed crop, which sells for roughly eight yuan (Dh4.3) per kilogram, has already died. "If it doesn't rain soon, we'll also lose the wheat harvest and have nothing to eat," Mr He said. According to the meteorological bureau, the province received an average rainfall of 10.5 millimetres between Nov 2008 and Jan 2009, almost 80 per cent less than in the same period of previous years.
Yesterday, however, the government lowered its drought warnings in two areas after snow and rainfall in the north. There was no respite, however, in Henan, where the terraced slopes above Yaoling village are brown and withered. The land was barren enough to start with, yielding 200kg of wheat per mu (1/15 of a hectare) compared with as much as 600kg on the floodplain below. The 3,000 villagers have access to a well, but there is barely enough water for drinking, let alone to irrigate their fields.
Across the country, more than 4.6 million people and 2.5 million head of livestock are affected by water shortages, according to the Office of State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters. An estimated 4.2m mu of wheat has shrivelled and died, and a further 29m remains "seriously threatened". With no crops to harvest and sell, some farmers have taken part-time work in the nearby coal mine, earning less than 1,500 yuan per month for toiling eight hours a day 200 metres underground. "The mine is the only place to go for work, and that can barely cover our living costs," said Mr Xi. "Some do it but some say they'd rather starve to death than work with explosives underground."
The hills around Gongyi are peppered with mines, quarries and industrial works. Aluminium processing factories, copper mines, brick burning plants and chemical works appear around every corner, all of which compete with the surrounding farms for an increasingly scarce water supply. "The factories are using groundwater too intensively," said Wen Bo, a leading Chinese environmentalist with Pacific Environment, a San Francisco-based non-governmental agency.
The Chinese government has said it has spent around US$50 million (Dh183.6m) and despatched 30m people to help with drought relief, but Yaoling is still waiting. "We've asked the government to help us," said Mr Xi, "but our village has been given the accolade of being 'rich and healthy', so they have refused to offer us support." The villagers say all they need is a pump to bring water up from the plain below to irrigate their fields.
But even if they receive this, Mr Wen believes redressing the water problems will take a fundamental change in attitude. "Unfortunately, the Chinese government still think improved engineering is the solution, but it's not. It's not a long-term solution." According to Mr Wen, the entire northern China basin has been sinking for the past 30 years, as groundwater is continuously being sucked out by both industry and agricultural enterprises.
"It's cheaper to dig below your own factory, as you don't have to pay for piping or to clean the water. Much of the river water is too polluted to use." In the village of Nanzhou, one hour's drive west of Zhengzhou, farmers have benefited from wells dug by the government as part of a 15-year-old investment project. Each well provides irrigation water for around 300 mu of crops and its flow is tapped almost free of charge.
"Agricultural water use is heavily subsidised," said Xu Hong Guo, a village elder, "so we can continue to pump water from the well without too much worry." Barely 20 years ago, the villagers lived in basic dwellings hollowed out from the sides of the cliff face. Now, most have brick-built homes as part of a government plan to raise standards of living. "Things have improved amazingly," said Mr Xu. "I remember when I was three years old, there was a drought in the village and some people died. This drought hasn't affected our daily lives all that much."
Some villagers, however, are still waiting for their new homes. Yu Wen Xian and her husband are one such couple who, because they live on higher ground, are too far from the wells to have access to water. "We rely on the heavens for our water," she said. "Our rapeseed has been wiped out this year, and we only have enough water for drinking purposes." But Mrs Yu said her family has wheat in storage and confidence the government will help them out. "We won't die of starvation like in the past."
Many of Henan's farmers are similarly upbeat because plentiful harvests in previous years have left them with a surplus and able to take advantage of an increase in the price of wheat. Mr Wen said this was shortsighted as China's wheat-growing areas were likely to face further water shortages in the future. "I think the drought problem is partly from the impact of climate change, but the other part of it is human errors," he said. "There is a problem of a loss of vegetation in northern China's basin. The grass, trees and forests have largely been cleared, and this has meant that the precipitation just runs off the hills and is lost, rather than seeping gradually down to the basin below."
According to a study conducted before the most recent drought by the ministry of water resources, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, 11.5m hectares of land in China were suffering from heavy soil and water loss and 82 per cent of the most affected areas are along the Yellow and Yangtze River valleys. Damming and irrigation projects have also contributed to a lack of water in the downstream area and led to an inequitable distribution of water between provinces.
"The upstream provinces used to let the water go free of charge but they are starting to see that water is a precious resource in China. So places like Shanxi are offering extremely cheap water prices to attract investment," Mr Wen said. "We have to price water more sensibly to ensure industry and households realise the importance of conserving it." Chen Lei, China's water resources minister, has announced plans to reduce water consumption per capita of GDP by 60 per cent within the next 10 years. "We must take strict measures to preserve water resources in the face of the severe lack of water worsened by factors such as overuse, pollution and drought," he said.
* The National