A grim struggle at drought's ground zero

A grim struggle at drought's ground zero

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Oliver Tsang
The drought has left more than 2.2 million people and 1.1 million head of livestock short of water in Guangxi, while 740,000 hectares of farmland are too dry for planting. With 77 cities or counties declaring a state of emergency, there is no end in sight to the aridity. Photos: Oliver Tsang

By Fiona Tam, in Hechi, Guangxi

Guangxi farmer Chen Guihua and her parents-in-law, both in their 60s, need to walk nine kilometres and cross two mountains almost every day for two buckets of clean drinking water to survive the once-in-a-century drought that has struck the southwest of the mainland.

They have not taken a shower or brushed their teeth for more than three months and their plight is only getting worse. They are now forced to stay indoors most of the time to reduce water usage and avoid the high temperatures that have accompanied the drought.

Chen, 27, is now the only young woman living in the Zhuang ethnic minority village of Nongmei in Sanshi township, Donglan county, one of the eight worst-hit counties in Guangxi.

Almost all young and middle-aged villagers have left since the devastating drought began last autumn, drying up water sources and preventing farmers from getting on with spring planting.

Elderly villagers and children unable to walk such a long distance for safe drinking water are forced to survive on just two bowls of water a day. Many livestock have died of thirst.

In Guangxi, the drought has left more than 2.2 million people and 1.1 million head of livestock short of water and 740,000 hectares of farmland too dry to plant. At least 77 cities or counties in the autonomous region have declared a state of emergency and weather forecasters do not predict an end to the drought any time soon.

County authorities said it had received only half the rainfall normally expected by this time of year.

Premier Wen Jiabao , last month, and officials from the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters, this month, vowed to spare no effort in drought relief during visits to Sanshi.

But people from Nongmei, which lacks landline or mobile phone links to the outside world, complain that the local government has simply forgotten about them.

'The party and the government will help you overcome the drought disaster and address the difficulties,' Wen told farmers, while urging regional authorities to ensure there was sufficient water for people, livestock and spring planting.

But Chen said villagers still struggled for clean drinking water every day. 'The only water buffalo and a pig owned by my family died of thirst last month, but officials have tried to cover up livestock casualties caused by the drought,' she said. 'Six head of large livestock belonging to my neighbours also died of thirst and starvation because almost all the plants found growing in the wild have been eaten by villagers.'

Her family resorted to eating bitter wild plants after the drought withered most vegetables and crops, but after eight months of drought all the edible wild herbs around the village have been consumed.

'Sometimes we have no vegetables on our dining table for several days,' Chen said. 'To buy vegetables, I have to walk a nine-kilometre mountain road to the nearest marketplace. But the price of ordinary vegetables has soared dramatically and we can't afford greens every day.'

Money sent home by her husband, a migrant worker in Guangdong, helps the family survive.

In nearby Nongtai village, a group of elderly residents knelt before county officials to plead for enough drinking water to save their lives, the Southern Metropolis News reported on Wednesday.

It said the elderly residents, in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, had to walk 12 to 24 kilometres every day for water, after all the young and middle-aged villagers left to look for factory work.

'We don't want to die of thirst in the village, but we're no longer robust young men and can't carry two buckets of water for 12 kilometres,' the newspaper quoted one elderly farmer as saying. 'We may die of fatigue on the road one day.'

Donglan county deputy chief Mo Shiliang said firefighters could only manage to truck water to villages once or twice a week.

'The narrow mountain roads linking with the village are too steep and it takes six hours for fire engines to deliver water,' he said. The county only had 10 fire engines and it was impossible to take care of several hundred small villages in mountainous areas.

Lan Haijin , from the village of Wenqian in the Bama Yao ethnic minority autonomous county, said people fought for drinking water whenever the fire engines arrived.

'You'd better keep away from water wagons as people often come to blows for water to survive,' he said. 'Speculators sell water for 20 yuan (HK$23) a tonne and earn staggering profits by selling plastic buckets.'

Mainland media have reported that a speculator earned more than 200,000 yuan from poverty-stricken regions by selling plastic buckets after they were hit by drought.

Wei Wanmei , a 100-year-old Zhuang grandmother from Nongmei, said it was the worst drought in her memory. 'We used to take water from a spring to drink, wash clothes and irrigate crops. It had never dried up in my memory, except this year,' she said. If the drought does not ease before July, Wei's family of five expects to run out of food.

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