A drought's dry aftermath

Chris Taylor
Chris Taylor |

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A villager carries water for her cattle from a well in Kunming's Shilin county that people cannot drink from. Photo: Reuters

In the third of our four-part series on bottled water, Chris Taylor finds out about the impact of the southwest's worst drought in a century

Although the mainland officially downgraded the severity of the drought afflicting the southwest in the first week of May, in Yunnan province relief has only come in the form of scattered showers. The worst drought in a century has devastated nature reserves and caused migratory birds to move on - raising the risk of insects ravaging crops.

When the crops materialise that is.

On the outskirts of Wenge village, Xuanwei county, about a four-hour drive past parched fields from Kunming , 48-year-old farmer Chui Yongfa says that intermittent rain over the past two weeks gave him hope to plant his crop of corn.

"It's two months late," he says, adding that he doesn't know how much the drought will cost him. Chui says he only generally makes around 3,000 to 4,000 yuan a year, but this year his income will be "a lot less".

In the village, residents queue patiently to draw water from wells. They are lucky. At least Wenge's wells have water. Chinese language news items from Yunnan regularly report on villagers having to walk kilometres to fetch water and the government is reportedly considering relocating many remote mountain villages where people have no natural sources of water if rain does not come by late May.

If that does not happen, Zhu Youyong, president of Yunnan Agricultural University in Kunming, told the website Nature News that the results would be "unthinkable".

Yunnan has had 60 per cent less rain than is normal since September and temperatures are 1.7 per cent higher on average, causing around US$2.5 billion in damages to crops, university figures show. Some 8.1 million people are short of drinking water - that is close to 20 per cent of Yunnan's population.

For many people in this now dusty province, this means anxieties about crops and drinking water - it means doing without "luxuries" Hongkongers take for granted. Chinese-language media carried reports on residents in Panzhihua, in the north of Yunnan, on the Sichuan border, delaying marriages because they had not had water to shower with since Lunar New Year. Meanwhile, Qujing county offers an indication of how worrying the situation is. The park at the county's top tourist attraction - the source of the Pearl River, the river that feeds Guangdong and Hong Kong - is deserted, the pathways surrounded by dusty trees. The guesthouse is shuttered and the visitors' centre empty. The source - a cave marked with red characters - is bone dry and flanked by cracked mud flats.

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Read the other three parts of our bottled water series