While Xu Baoguo strenuously paddled towards shore, he had no idea when he could return to his houseboat on the Honghu Lake, which has almost completely dried up due to a persistent drought.
Xu was among many fishermen who have been forced to leave their homes after the drought severely impacted their livelihoods in central China’s Hubei and Hunan provinces.
In Xu’s hometown, a fishing village named Yuye in Hubei, 217 of the 229 people have abandoned their houseboats on dried-up Honghu Lake, the country’s seventh-largest freshwater lake.
The lake is suffering the worst drought to hit it in 70 years, having received only 144 millimeters of rainfall from January 21 to May 21 this year, according to Chen Gang, chief engineer of the flood control and drought relief headquarters of the city of Honghu.
This amount of rain is just 21 percent of the amount recorded during the same period last year, Chen said.
“I was farming 20 mu (about 1.3 hectares) of fish and crabs. They all died. We are struggling to survive,” said Xu, while packing his bags.
On Wednesday, the 29-year-old fisherman and his family moved out of the houseboat where they had resided for six years.
Most of the fishermen in the village used bank loans to fund their aquaculture farms, Xu said, adding that these fishermen will almost certainly bear huge economic losses this year.
All 1.16 million mu of Honghu’s aquaculture farms have been affected by the drought, Chen said. The drought has already caused economic losses of 530 million yuan (about 81.7 million U.S. dollars), according to Chen.
A dozen fishermen who refused to give up their homes on Honghu Lake have had to go without drinking water, as the lake has shrunk to a tiny 20-centimeter-deep and four-meter-wide stream, Xu said.
“Nobody dares to drink the muddy water in the stream,” he added.
Further, the government of the township of Luoshan, which administers the village of Yuye, has established a temporary resettlement center in a nursing home to accommodate fishermen who have fled their homes.
The government has provided fishermen with drinking water and food, as well as 100 yuan each in subsidies, said Gong Yuqing, deputy head of the township. “That’s all we can do.”
It would take at least 10 years to repair the lake’s ecological environment that has been ravaged by the drought, even if the lake was filled by water soon, said Wang Xixin, the town head.
“The drought killed fish, waterweeds and algae, which are crucial to cleaning the water,” Wang said.
In neighboring Hunan Province, some fishermen living near the Dongting Lake, China’s second largest freshwater lake, have had to seek jobs outside their hometown after the water level in the lake plummeted to a record low of 21.74 meters two weeks ago.
Similarly, the water volume in the Poyang Lake, the country’s largest freshwater lake, once shrank to 740 million cubic meters, only 13 percent of that recorded in the same period in previous years.
The long-lasting drought has plagued the Yangtze River, China’s longest river, with the lowest levels of rainfall seen since 1961.
The drought has affected parts of Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Anhui, Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, which are located near the middle and lower reaches of the river. These areas have seen 40 to 60 percent less rainfall than usual.
From May 25 to June 10, China will discharge more water from the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River to alleviate the drought in the downstream provinces, increasing the water flow from the previous 10,000 cubic meters per second to 11,000 to 12,000 cubic meters per second.
In Honghu, no rain is forecast for the following 10 days. In the resettlement center, fisherman Wang Xingui told Xinhua that he often had a nightmare in which the Honghu Lake disappeared amid the drought and he could not feed fish any longer.