- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 1, 2009

YAOLING, China | In good times, Xi Guojun’s small plot of land produces just enough winter wheat to provide for his family. But these are not good times.

On a dusty, terraced hillside, gazing over his yellowing crop, the 44-year-old farmer wonders how he’ll make it through what has become China’s worst drought in 50 years.

“I have parents, a wife and a daughter to feed,” said Mr. Xi, who has no surplus wheat stocked from previous years. “How am I supposed to do that? If the harvest totally fails, it will be disastrous. Not only will we lose the wheat to sell, we’ll have to buy it just to eat.”

Though light rains fell recently in the Henan provincial village of Yaoling, as a result of government cloud-seeding efforts, it was barely enough to counteract the impact of more than 100 days without rain.

Mr. Xi’s wheat stands at about one-third the height it should have at this time of year. With no access to irrigation, unless more rain comes soon, the crop is likely doomed.

Eight provinces in central and north China have been struck by the drought. The most populous - Henan province, with nearly 100 million people - is among the hardest hit. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, 60 percent of Henan’s wheat crop could fail if the drought doesn’t end in the next month.

“We live by the will of the sky,” said He Hongpu, 45, who farms alongside Mr. Xi. “If it doesn’t rain, we will have nothing to eat.”

While no one is predicting the mass starvation that stalked China’s countryside a half century ago, the social safety net is limited. A “rural minimum living allowance” covers only 39 million of China’s 900 million rural workers and goes to those who lack other income sources or who are disabled. Yaoling is categorized as a “rich and healthy village” and so does not appear eligible for such help.

A few miles north of Yaoling, where the soil is better and the average wheat output per acre is double or more, water is available from wells that feed off groundwater, aquifers and irrigation channels coming from the Yellow River.

Many farmers in these areas have had to be encouraged by authorities to irrigate their fields because bumper crops in the past few years have left them with an ample surplus - enough that if their winter wheat fails, they can sell off some of their surplus at a high price.

At the Zhengzhou vegetable market, the largest wholesale produce market in central China, trucks are piled high with vegetables and business is brisk. Walking through the broad lanes between piles of garlic, boxes of tomatoes, huge sacks of Chinese radishes and dozens of other items, it’s hard to fathom that drought afflicts the countryside nearby.

Li Sen, the market manager, says that’s because almost all the produce coming through here at this time of year is from southern China. Supply problems won’t be evident for a few weeks, when much of China’s vegetable production shifts to the north.

“These crops need a lot of water,” said Mr. Li. “I hope the drought ends before the planting season starts. If it doesn’t, the price of vegetables will go up and affect the consumers.”

Zhang, a farmer in Huayuan town on the northwest outskirts of Henan’s largest city, Zhengzhou, estimated that his wheat was about 4 inches shorter than normal for this time of year and that half his crop might be lost.

So far, said the farmer, who asked that only his last name be used, he isn’t worried because he has surplus grain stored and a well to irrigate other crops.

“As long as the drought is over by mid-March, we’ll be fine,” Mr. Zhang said.

Just next to Mr. Zhang’s field another farmer had let his wheat field go dry while deciding to take a full-time job as a janitor in Zhengzhou.

Xu Hongguo, a 70-year-old retired engineer who has lived his entire life in the village of Nanzhou west of Zhengzhou, said the current situation is still far better than in his childhood, when many people died of starvation.

“People had to leave the village to find food,” he said. “Those that stayed lived on a handful of rice a day. Some died.”

Until the 1980s, farmland was so valuable that families in Nanzhou lived in dwellings carved into the sides of plateaus below the crops. Now the village is entirely above ground, and there is a well for every 50 acres of farmland.

Yaoling and its 3,000 residents are not so fortunate.

The only well in the village lacks a functioning pump and can only be used for drinking water and to meet the needs of the local coal mine, not irrigation.

“I hope the government can do something to help, but so far they´ve done nothing,” Mr. He said.

Mr. Xi said the villagers had asked the government for a pump, but were rejected because the village has a “rich” and healthy” categorization. “We don’t feel rich and healthy right now,” he said.

To supplement their income, both Mr. Xi and Mr. He are working at a local coal mine, making $150 to $300 a month.

“The mine is the only place to go for work, to earn some wages to cover our living costs, though it is barely enough,” said Mr. He. “If you´re willing to work the mines, you do; if you´re not, you´re out of a job.”

“Mining is not for everyone,” he added. “Some do it, and some say they´d rather starve to death than work with the explosives underground.”

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