When water and hope run out

IN HER 44 YEARS, Zhang Chuanqin has never seen it so dry. Outside her mud-and-thatch home at Zhangdian village in central Anhui province, the rice plants that should be growing past her waist barely reach her knees.

'This is worse than 1994 or 1978,' she grimaced, recalling the last time crops here were completely wiped out by drought. 'Don't be fooled by the colour,' she added, ripping apart an emerald husk to reveal a pinch of tiny grains. 'None of this can be harvested.'

Along the ox path leading from Zhangdian village to the Hehuai highway, a parched shroud hangs over the withering terrain. Roadside gullies that should be flowing with runoff from nearby hills have been transformed into muddy troughs. Ducks waddle through the bottoms of pond basins that hold a smattering of brackish residue. Bean plants yellow beneath a wilting sun.

It is a cruel landscape that can be found throughout much of northern and central China this summer. From Heilongjiang and inner Mongolia, down through Ningxia to Jiangxi and Henan provinces, drought has made this year one of the meanest in recent memory. The central Government estimates that 30 million hectares of farmland have been affected by the lack of rainfall, leaving 35 million people with water shortages throughout the country.

In Anhui province, where the majority of the 61 million inhabitants remain subsistence farmers, the drought's impact has been especially severe. Officially, as many as two million rural residents throughout the province no longer have access to enough water to meet their own personal needs, and as many as 770,000 head of livestock are struggling to survive. More than 1.2 million hectares of cultivated land is in drought, and for more than 460,000 hectares the situation has been labelled severe. The Government puts total crop damage for the summer at a minimum of five billion yuan (about HK$4.7 billion).

But the drought can be measured in other ways. Thousands of villagers, largely in the province's mountainous south, have been forced to abandon their homes in search of safe drinking water. Tens of thousands of others have hit the road, swelling the province's already considerable labour migration, to go as far away as Xinjiang province to find work.

According to Chu Hui, chief of Anhui's Anti-Flood and Drought Office, the province's difficulties started in winter when the last rains fell.

By May 1, lands north of the Huai River were already in drought. The situation worsened when crucial summer rain failed to arrive. In the northern plains of Huaibei, summer rainfall has slackened by as much as 70 per cent, while in southern Jiangnan, along the Yangtze River, as little as 10 per cent of normal rainfall has been recorded.

Among the stricken areas is Pishihang, a massive 68,400-hectare agricultural plain in the centre of the province, where a five-billion-kilogram grain harvest is in jeopardy because the area's main reservoirs are nearly empty. At other large provincial reservoirs the situation is similarly worrisome, with water falling to nearly 10 per cent of capacity and one-third of levels normal for this time of year.

In Hefei, the provincial capital, water levels became so low at the city's Dongpu Reservoir that the local government took the drastic step of drawing its drinking water from Chaohu Lake, which is heavily polluted with industrial and human waste.

'Anhui's problem is water,' Ms Chu said. 'Either there's too much of it, or there's too little, or it is just plain dirty.' Drought and flood certainly are constant visitors to the province. In the past 10 years, Anhui has weathered one other major drought and four major floods, the last in 1998 when as many as 400,000 homes and buildings were damaged.

Among the province's worst-hit areas this year has been rural Changfeng county, about 100 kilometres north of Hefei, where more than half the area's 950,000 farmers are suffering under the drought and some 125,000 county residents are having trouble simply finding clean drinking water.

'Our water has just dried up,' explained Wang Shaoming, deputy director of the county's anti-drought office. 'The rains simply did not come to Changfeng this year.' That is hardly an exaggeration. For the month of July, only 7.2 millimetres of rain fell here, or less than three per cent of the 220mm that is considered average for the month.

In Yangmiao township, officials have been forced to cut off running water and desperate farmers have taken to digging small wells in dried-up reservoir beds and ponds to tap standing ground water. Others are shouldering buckets of water several kilometres back to their homes.

'The farmers have been very creative about using water more efficiently,' said Mr Wang. 'They are recycling household water to use again in their fields.' Despite such efforts, the drought has brought ruin to the county's summer grain and cash crops. County officials are putting total agricultural losses so far at 394 million yuan, or about a fifth of the county's gross domestic product for last year. With average Changfeng incomes reaching only 1,482 yuan per year, local officials are bracing for the worst.

Already, thousands of young men have started leaving their farms for cities as near as Nanjing and as far away as Shenzhen. The Changfeng government has been encouraging the migration, dispatching locally organised labour brigades to the mainland's northwest to farm. Earlier this summer, the county went so far as to commission a train to carry more than 1,000 local farmers to harvest cotton in Xinjiang province.

They are expected to earn about 1,000 yuan each for two months of work. Provincial media report that as many as 200,000 Anhui workers have left their homes for the northwest as part of a larger migration.

In Zhangdian village, Zhang Chuanqin also worries about what winter will bring. Her husband has a sideline as a village doctor, she said, but collecting payments from her neighbours during such hard times was going to be difficult.

Fellow villager Fang Cenli said he was likely to leave for nearby Hefei this winter to repair shoes and sell laces. It will not be that easy, he admitted. 'With so many people leaving their homes, and so many people laid-off from factories in town, it is going to be rough.'

Matthew Miller ( [email protected]) is a member of the Post's Shanghai bureau

Graphic: anhuigfa