China drought worsens in parched north

A farmer shovels soil for irrigating a wheat field on the outskirts in northern China
Image caption In northern China farmers are working hard to try to save their crops from the drought

Across northern China swathes of land are dry, parched by drought.

In some areas these are the driest conditions in a lifetime. Snowfalls in recent days have helped a little, but still, across huge areas of land, water is in short supply.

The countryside is dotted with empty dams. Standing on top of one, near Qufu in Shandong Province, you can see just a tiny muddy pool in the centre of a dam that is hundreds of metres long.

Sitting rusting on the earth is a small boat. Along the dry dam floor people have been planting rows of crops because it has been like this for so long.

Li Si Jiao, 77, his back stooped with age, shuffles slowly along a path on top of the dam. His face is weathered and creased with lines. He gestures at the dam and says the water used to stretch all the way to the village in the distance, but no more.

This is China's breadbasket, the heart of its grain growing lands, and all around are Shandong's wheat fields. They are full of lines of seedlings, sprouting from the ground, but wilting and yellowing.

A grey, polluted haze hangs in the air. Every few hundred yards small groups of men and women are working to try to save their crops from the drought.

China is the world's biggest grower and consumer of wheat. In normal years it is self-sufficient. But if it has to import grain this year then that will have an impact far afield.

Already just the warnings of a possible shortfall in China's crop have put pressure on global wheat prices.

Emergency measures

As we approach one group of farmers they crank an old engine into life. It sputters, and then water spurts out from a thick pipe dangling down an open well perhaps 20m (65ft) deep.

The well belongs to Liu De Xu and his wife Wang Li Jun. They are sharing the water with their neighbours and it has to be rationed. Yesterday it was Liu De Xu's turn to water his tiny patch of land, about 10m wide and 50m long, where his wheat is planted. Today it is his neighbour's turn.

Image caption Warnings of a possible shortfall in China's crop have put pressure on global wheat prices

Mr Liu and his wife are now desperate to prevent their seedlings from dying.

He has a metal contraption slung over his shoulder. Walking behind him, she guides it as it tears at the ground and spreads fertiliser to keep the crop growing. It is hard, manual labour, and Mr Liu puffs and strains as he marches along.

Then his wife grabs some of the wheat plants and runs over to me. "Look," she says, "they are all like this."

The tiny shoots are no more than a few centimetres long, but half of them are already shrivelled and drying.

"We need a solution to this problem, if there is not enough rain we'll all have to abandon the fields and go to the towns to find work."

To stop that happening China's government is spending $1bn (£600m) on emergency measures to fight the drought. In practice that means digging wells, and lots of them.

We find a team with a giant rig they have constructed in a field. Four men in blue overalls and red hard hats haul giant metal pipes into place, then drill down.

It will take them several days to dig. But the foreman tells me that this is only a temporary measure, only more rain can solve the basic problem of the drought.

The last well the team completed two days ago produced water for just a few minutes, then nothing more came out.

Deep under the earth China's water, on its arid northern plain, is slowly running out. It is a massive problem and China is only just starting to face up to it.

Long-term problems

Some 200 million people live across the north China plain. It is home to giant cities like Beijing and Tianjin which are expanding fast. But the area has water resources comparable to a desert country and every year as the population swells the water stress grows worse.

China's industries are inefficient, they consume far more water than those in developed countries. The country's construction boom means water use is even more intensive.

Many of the rivers in the north have dried up. Dams have blocked their normal flow, the water diverted to towns, farms and factories.

The northern megacities now rely on underground water sources for two-thirds of their needs. But the aquifers beneath places like Beijing are being drained, sinking as they are used faster than the rain can replenish them. Some fear the water could be gone in 30 years in places.

Ma Jun is one of China's most prominent environmentalists. Over a decade ago he wrote a book titled China's Water Crisis.

As we walk along one of Beijing's dirty canals he tells me: "In China two-thirds of our cities are short of water.

Shifting water

"But the north China plain, where many of our biggest cities and industries are found, and which is China's breadbasket, is where our water is in shortest supply. So this drought now is making our long-term problems worse."

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Media captionDamian Grammaticas looks at the construction of the North-South project

The biggest fear of all is that China, now an engine for the global economy, could find that lack of water constrains its future growth.

"There is a growing understanding," Ma Jun says, "that we need to change, that our mode of growth is not sustainable. The harsh reality is that there is simply not enough water."

The country does have huge quantities of water, but they lie far to the south, in the massive rivers that run from west to east, 1,000km away from Beijing and the cities of the north.

So China is pressing ahead with one of the world's biggest engineering schemes to shift the water northwards.

Fond of massive schemes, the country's Communist Party leaders are building the North-South water project, a giant series of canals and pipes to carry water from the Yangtze and Yellow rivers to Beijing. The cost of the project is a staggering $60bn (£36.8bn).

Standing on a giant crane looking down on one of the North-South construction sites you can see hundreds of workers welding and cutting iron bars, building huge metal moulds to make sections of concrete pipe.

Each section is around 10m (33ft) high, 8m (26ft) wide and 30m (99ft) long. When complete the North-South project will deliver the equivalent of 50,000 Olympic-size swimming pools full of water to cities in the north each day.

One of the men overseeing the site tells me that it is a great honour to take part in the project, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a construction engineer.

But the scheme can only be a stopgap. The amount of water it will deliver will buy China time to change and, hopefully, become more efficient.

But it won't be enough to solve the country's water woes. China's thirst is just too great, and unless it alters its ways, millions might find one day, that their water could run dry.

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