GONGYI, China — The flowers that welcome visitors to the town of Gongyi in China’s Henan province have seen better days. The stems that spell out the greeting message are withered and parched, the surrounding grass bleached yellow from lack of water.
China’s worst drought in 50 years is taking a heavy toll here. It hasn’t rained in nearby Yaoling village for more than 100 days. Even the government’s efforts to fire cloud-seeding rockets into the sky that brought minor relief to much of the province haven't worked here.
Xi Guo Jun, a farmer from the village, runs his hands through his hair in exasperation. “All of our wheat has dried out and is dying. If it doesn’t rain soon, the harvest will fail entirely and we won’t have enough to eat,” he says.
The village’s 3,000 residents are entirely dependent on rainfall to grow wheat and rapeseed. The ground is too high to sink a well, and too far from the Yellow River’s irrigation channels that water fields below. While the wheat can still be saved if rain comes, the rapeseed crop has been lost entirely.
“Some families don’t even have enough to drink. I have parents, a wife and a daughter to feed,” Xi spits in disgust. “How am I supposed to do that with no wheat?”
Unlike many farmers in the province, Yaoling has little or no wheat in reserve. As such, Vice Minister of Agriculture Wei Chao'an’s recent assertion that the government’s $57 million relief aid is working gets short shrift in Yaoling. “We’ve asked the government for a pump to get water in from outside but they won’t give it to us because we’ve been given the accolade of living in a ‘rich and healthy village’. We don’t feel too rich or healthy right now,” says 40-year-old farmer He Hong Pu.
Henan province, which produces around a quarter of China’s wheat, is taking the brunt of the drought’s impact. According to provincial government estimates, 43.5 million metric tons of wheat have been affected. Across the country, around 4.3 million people and two million head of livestock face drinking water shortages.
Even on the floodplain of the Yellow River, where access to irrigation and well water means the situation is less serious, much of the wheat is stunted and yellowed. In Huayuanjou town, a man surnamed Zhang said his crop is roughly 10 centimeters shorter than it should be at this time of year. He and his wife expect the harvest to yield roughly half of what they would normally expect.
In Nanzhou village, an hour’s drive to the west of the provincial capital Zhengzhou, lifetime resident Xu Hong Guo, 70, is philosophical about the drought’s impact. He remembers 1943, when several people died as a result of chronic water shortages. “This drought hasn’t affected daily life all that much,” he says. “We have enough water in the village well for drinking and irrigation because the government built wells 20 years ago.” Yet even here some villagers stand to lose everything if the heavens refuse to open.
Yu Wen Xian, 77, and her husband live too high above the village for the well water to reach them. “We’re full-time farmers and this is our only source of income. This year we’ve lost all the money from the rapeseed crop, it’s all died.” They also expect to lose at least half their wheat crop. “If it doesn’t rain at all we’ll lose it all.”
Current drought aside, China faces a more fundamental problem of water scarcity. Efforts to dig new wells and repair old ones should bring temporary respite, but officials are struggling find a sustainable way to provide water to 1.3 billion people, with just seven percent of the world's fresh water reserves.
Xiliu Lake on the outskirts of Zhengzhou offers a stark illustration of the water shortage here. The lake is almost entirely dried up with just a few residual dregs puddled here and there. The water is no longer fit for human consumption, and surrounding farms must now rely on groundwater and the city’s reservoir for irrigation.
“We used to go pleasure boating here,” says 20-year-old student Miao Yuan. “The lake used to be 9 feet deep, and people have drowned while swimming in it. There’s not much chance of that now.”