Drought threatens China’s wheat crop

The region that produces 95 percent of the country’s wheat is facing its worst drought in 50 years.

A farmer fishes in a semi-dry canal at the outskirts of Fuyang, Anhui province, China.
Peter Ford/The Christian Science Monitor
A woman digs a ditch in parched wheat fields in Yu Tai, China.

Liu Shanni yanks a yellowed seedling from her plot of wheat, brushes the dusty soil from its withered roots, and tosses it away disdainfully.

“Dead,” she spits. “If it doesn’t rain soon, I’ll have no harvest at all.”

Nor will millions of other peasant farmers in the drought-stricken belt of northern China that normally produces 95 percent of the country’s winter wheat. “Winter crops are entering a critical period,” the head of China’s drought-relief efforts, Er Jingping, said on Tuesday. “If it does not rain in the next 15 days, we will face an even more daunting task.”

The most prolonged drought for half a century has parched fields and stunted crops in this remote village at a particularly difficult time. Many of the residents who normally migrate to the cities, and send money home, have lost their jobs as China’s economic growth slows. Suddenly, the wheat harvest here in Zhaogou matters again as a question of subsistence.

Local authorities are keenly aware of the looming crisis and are digging new wells in the plains north of here in search of irrigation water. But that will not help Ms. Liu, or other farmers in the countless villages dotted around the hillsides of Henan Province, which grows one-quarter of China’s wheat. “We depend on the sky to survive,” she says.

That sky has offered her rain only once since she planted her wheat last August, she says: a light shower four days ago that moistened the surface of her fields.

Not just the weather
Officials blame farmers’ difficulties on the weather. “There has been very little rain and unusually high temperatures this winter which have caused heavy moisture loss in the soil,” Mr. Er told reporters. Three cold snaps, he added, froze irrigation channels in many places and rendered them useless.

Independent agricultural experts, however, say human factors are to blame, too. “The fundamental problem in northern China is a lack of water,” says Li Guangyong, a water conservation expert at the Agriculture University in Beijing. “There simply is not enough.” And if reservoirs are emptying and wells drying up, he adds, it is because of the wasteful way in which Chinese farmers use water.

Farmers in irrigable areas like to use old fashioned flooding methods, Professor Li explains, sending water coursing down their rows of seedlings and thoroughly soaking them. “They are suspicious of sprinklers or micro-irrigation,” he says. “They don’t think those systems use enough water.”

More-efficient sprinkler systems, moreover, are not well suited to the tiny plots that make up most family farms. The result: Farmers waste 55 percent of the water they use, where the international average for such waste is 30 percent.

That is also because most of China’s irrigation systems – the canals, pumping stations, locks, and wells that feed the wheat fields – are old and function poorly, if at all.

“After several decades of use many of them have long been out of repair,” Er acknowledged. He estimated that between 40 and 50 percent of China’s hydraulic engineering networks needed to be mended.

That is a problem here in Henan, says Wang Tianli, an official with the local drought-relief office. Along with the six wells his office has drilled in the past two months, it has restored another three that had fallen out of use.

The money, he says, comes from a $50 million emergency fund the government set up to cope with the drought, and from the giant economic stimulus package unveiled last November. Mr. Wang’s engineer colleagues are spending it digging deeper wells and replacing leaky cement pipes with plastic ones as they seek to stem 50 percent losses of the water they find.

Such emergency measures across the wheat belt, Er assured a press conference, “will prevail … and ensure a good harvest.” He added a note of caution, however, warning that Chinese “cannot lose sight of the fact that the drought has had some impact on agricultural production.”

The government has also turned to cloud-seeding chemicals to try to produce rain. Parts of the north got light rain and sleet last week after nearly 2,400 rockets and some 400 cannon shells loaded with chemicals were shot into clouds, the weather bureau reported.

Liu and her neighbors who live in the hills, far from any irrigation channels, fear that for the second year running, drought will destroy their crops.

Harder to scrape by
Last year they could shrug off the loss. Liu’s husband worked in a local brick factory, for example, and her two sons had jobs at a coal mine; between them, they brought in several hundred dollars each month and the family could afford to buy grain.

As economic storm clouds gathered over China, though, the brick factory suspended production three months ago and the coal mine closed for good. “About 40 percent of the men here worked at those two places,” says Zhao Linjiang, a member of the village committee. “Now it’s hard to find work.”

“The factories are closing, but we can’t close our mouths,” complains Liu. “We have to eat. If only it would rain.”

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