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Chinese province parched by drought

By Adrienne Mong, NBC News Correspondent

DEGE VILLAGE, Yunnan Province, China – It was the clamshells that were the most startling.

Larger than my hand, they lay whole on the parched earth, presenting an incongruous image of a drought that people in this part of southwestern China say has been the worst in a century. 

The clamshells were all that were left behind in the Dege Haizi Reservoir, the main source of water for the residents of Luliang County in Yunnan Province.

 China_drought_shell Adrienne Mong/ NBC News Clamshells are all that have been left behind in the Dege Haizi Reservoir

"This is a very serious drought," said Ling Shiwei, a 75-year-old subsistence farmer with a toothy grin despite the grim circumstances. "From July to now, we've had nothing but dry weather."

A little rain fell in Luliang at the very beginning of April and just in the past week, but nowhere near enough to make a difference. 

While parts of southwest China are entering the flood season, Luliang County in Yunnan Province, is still suffering from what some people describe as the worst drought in a century.  

Following the seasonal droughts of recent years, this year's dry spell is wreaking havoc on crops in Yunnan. The dried-out reservoir helped to feed what was once the largest irrigation plain in the region, enabling Luliang's rich farmland to produce massive amounts of rice and tobacco. 

The region's staple crops may be the only victims for now, but farmers are beginning to worry that if it continues any longer, they'll be next.

 China_drought_farmers Adrienne Mong/ NBC News Farmers from Dege Village find themselves taking longer breaks as the drought persists. CLICK TO WATCH VIDEO: Chinese province hit by drought.

No harvest yet
Already, they're affected.  Some estimates say the drought has had an impact on over fifty million people. People such as Luliang's tobacco farmers, who have been anxiously awaiting this time of year when the rain is traditionally supposed to begin falling again.

In the fields scattered around the reservoir, tobacco farmers were tilling the land – the color of burnt sienna – just in case rain does come.

"This year's harvest will be half as much as previous years," said Feng Huasen, a 52-year-old tobacco farmer from Dege Village who was helping to cultivate the fields. 

In a county populated predominantly by subsistence farmers, tobacco is a critical source of income. Feng said the tobacco companies were providing subsidies this year to help farmers who can't make ends meet.

"For the highest quality tobacco, we would be paid almost three cents per pound," said Feng.  But if the farmers end up having to grow corn, which is a hardier and much less-water intensive crop, "we would only get paid 0.14 cents," said Feng.

Ling already grows corn and potatoes; the latter were tiny, gnarled tubers when we stopped by his home inside Dege village as his wife prepared lunch. Their midday meal consisted of a small bowl of fried potato chunks, a small bowl of fried potato crisps, and several smaller bowls of pickled vegetables. 

They were still able to feed themselves – just barely.

Others aren't taking a chance. Of Dege's population of 6,000, only the elderly and children can be seen around town these days.  Most young adults left for greener pastures earlier this year. 

"They've gone," said Feng Jianhua, a 45-year-old farmer who would have taken off as well, but he needed to stay behind to tend to his flock of sheep and goats. "It's too dry. You can't grow anything.  They've gone to find work."

"Many of the young people have left," echoed Ling Jiwen, a 40-year-old farmer who also remained in Dege to look after his ill parents. "More than usual this year, much more. Even some of the older ones, the 50-year-olds, are going out to find work."

 China_drought_farmers Adrienne Mong/NBC News Tobacco farmers from Dege Village turning over the nutrient-rich soil in the hope that rain will come next month.

Root causes
Chinese officials have been routinely quoted in the media as blaming this year's drought on climate change, and some scientists agree.

"It's cyclical," said Professor Qian Weihong from the Department of Atmospheric Studies at Beijing University. "There were periods like this back in the late 1950s and the late 1960s."

But others say there's more to it.

"The ecological system and the environment have accumulated so many problems in so many years, [after] decades of deforestation [and] unplanned farming," said Yang Yong, an environmentalist and scientist with the Hengduan Mountain Research Center. "The damage on the ecosystem after so many years shows up with extreme climate conditions."

Yang also noted a problem somewhat unique to Yunnan. The province abuts the Tibet Autonomous Region, which is the source for several of Asia's major rivers, including the Mekong – some of which also flow through Yunnan. Chinese officials have been busy the past decade damming those rivers for hydropower.  (According to International Rivers, an environment NGO, China has more than half the world's 50,000-some large dams.)

"There are many dams and basins in Yunnan," said Yang. "And in every basin, many villages with high density populations live off one or two reservoirs.  If the upstream reservoirs don't have enough water in the dry season, the downstream reservoirs will be greatly affected... So the water management is more critical in this long-lasting dry season." 

The dramatic change from drought to flooding in Yunnan's neighboring provinces does suggest water management is a key problem.

In the meantime, the Chinese government has launched short-term measures like cloud-seeding to create artificial rainfall digging for new wells, and running supplies of bottled water to the most affected areas. 

In Dege, bottles of water were distributed from the town's only secondary school on Mondays, and empty bottles were collected on Thursdays.

"Before we had a drinking water machine at home," said Huang Lu Yao, a pint-sized 12-year-old student cradling a nearly-full bottle in his arms. "Now it's bottles of water.  They give us six bottles. Each day I bring one bottle home, and each day I bring an empty one back to school. It's enough for one person."

Residents in Dege still had running tap water, but everyone we saw used it sparingly and only for washing.

They, however, are much more fortunate than some of their fellow farmers.

Hiking for water

A few miles up the gently rolling mountains, in Xiangzipo, villagers were hiking at least a mile over rocky hills to draw water from the one pond still remaining – and fast shrinking.

An 80-year old farmer with a slight frame had just finished washing his laundry by the side of the pond and was making his way methodically over the uneven dirt path back home.  His freshly washed clothes were divided between two straw baskets hanging from a pole across his bony shoulders. Underneath a pile in one basket lay a few plastic bottles.

"This pond belongs to Lunan County," said Qian Yilian, a middle-aged farmer from Xiangzipo, part of the neighbouring Luliang County.  "The people in Lunan don't want us to use it.  They're worried because they heard that we get water to feed the herds."

Qian said her village also received bottled water from the government, but the deliveries were erratic because of the difficult road access, and the supply was not enough to do more than drink.  For washing and for feeding their livestock, they all made the trek to the Lunan pond.

In fact, right after lunch, a steady trickle of Xiangzipo villagers pitched up on the edge of the pond, almost all followed by water buffaloes drawing carts bearing round tin water tanks they would quickly fill. No one loitered for very long – perhaps mindful of drawing too much attention.

"[The people in Lunan County] don't want us using their water," said one woman who had come to wash her family's clothes. "But what can we do?"

Back down in Dege, a handful of farmers dug away at the bottom of the dried out reservoir. Though the lake bed was rock hard, the nutrient-rich soil was valuable. "I'm going to mix it with manure and use it for my farmland," said Ling Shiwei, who was tossing brick-sized blocks of the reservoir earth onto the back of his oxcart.

Though there is still no indication that regular rainfall will come, the farmers are paying no mind.  Life, some intimated, just goes on.

Others remained hopeful. "The drought wouldn't last longer than a year," said Feng Huasen, the tobacco farmer. "It's not possible for it to continue through the next year."

Stoicism and hope still springing eternal in this most desolate place.