Grain farmers fear they will reap nothing

Source: South China Morning Post

With no end in sight to a prolonged dry spell, villagers in top producing regions are living in despair and may be forced to find work in cities.

The prolonged drought in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River has dealt a heavy blow to the country’s leading source of summer grain, with desperate farmers around the nation’s two biggest lakes fearing they may have little to show at harvest time.

The output of early rice near Poyang Lake in Jiangxi and Dongting Lake in Hunan , the country’s top two producing regions, looks set to decline considerably this year amid one of the worst droughts in five decades. Hundreds of thousands of farmers in drought-stricken areas are living in despair, their hopes for a harvest dashed by forecasts of further dry weather.

“It’s a devastating nightmare for my family because that’s our only steady source of income,” said Hu Zhaoqi from Paishan village in Huarong county, one of the worst-hit areas near Dongting Lake.

His 8,600 square metres of rice paddies normally brings his family about 20,000 yuan (HK$23,930) a year. But water shortages this year have almost killed off 5,300 square metres of early rice. The other 3,300 square metres was too dry to plant seedlings. More than 1,300 villagers in Paishan say their crops, mostly early rice, have been devastated by the worst drought they have ever seen.

Since the drought began last November, rice fields in the village have become parched and cracked and seedlings burned and turned yellow from the heat and lack of water.

Hu said his last hope was that the drought would break in the next fortnight. “It is the best growing time for seedlings and we may get some meagre yields if it rains over the next two weeks. If not, we won’t get a single grain,” he said.

Other villagers said the prolonged drought looked increasingly likely to have a grave impact on autumn rice, normally planted right after the harvest of early rice in July.

“We may have to leave our homes and find odd jobs in cities if we don’t see much rain over the next month,” said Zheng Zunlan , another Paishan villager.

The Huarong county government says rainfall from November to early this month was 65 per cent less than normal, with at least 140,000 people in the county seat having difficulties getting fresh water supplies.

Dongting Lake is now less than a third the size it was in May last year. The Huayi reservoir, the county’s bigger, has almost dried up.

“We are supplying drinking and irrigation water for over 20,000 people in one neighbouring town and 10 villages within a 6-kilometre radius,” said Liao Aimin , who works at the reservoir. “But the water level has almost dropped to the minimum safety level and there is only enough water for four days.”

Farmers near Poyang Lake, the nation’s biggest freshwater lake, told similar stories.

Wang Yunnan , from Changhu village on the edge of Poyang Lake National Nature Reserve, said water shortages had ruined the lives of more than 2,000 villagers. “Everyone is affected severely. Our seedlings grow extremely slowly or even die without adequate water. Cattle that I raise can’t find enough water to drink and fish stocks are nearly wiped out,” he said.

Villagers says they can ride motorcycles on large parts of the lake bed, reduced to grassland and dust.

Hunan and Jiangxi, each with more than 13,000 square kilometres of rice paddies, account for nearly 47 per cent of the mainland’s total area of early rice.

Rice prices have increased recently in some areas because of the drought, but agricultural authorities in the affected areas are playing down its impact on the country’s grain output. They have also dismissed speculation about substantial price rises and what that would do to inflation, state media reported.

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