HONG KONG - The Chinese leadership, long obsessed with snuffing out social
unrest whenever and wherever it occurs, has encountered a foe that cannot be
defeated by its four trillion yuan (US$586 billion) economic stimulus package,
its Great Firewall of Internet censorship or even brute force: Mother Nature.
As the nation celebrates the miraculous rescue of 115 miners trapped for eight
days in one of the country's notoriously dangerous coal mines in northern
Shanxi province, the worst drought in a century continues to seize China's
southwest. While state-owned China Central Television trumpeted the heroic
rescue effort and provided blanket coverage, the head of drought relief in
China last week found himself denying media reports of
abandoned villages and an exodus of refugees from stricken areas.
"I don't think there are any refugees," said Liu Ning, secretary general of the
State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters.
But the reports continue, and things could get a lot worse if the hoped-for
rainy season does not arrive next month. At least 22 million people and 7.4
million hectares of farmland are affected by the drought in the provinces of
Guangxi, Guizhou, Yunnan and Sichuan and in the sprawling municipality of
Chongqing. Moreover, Liu, who is also vice minister of water resources, has
admitted that three northern provinces - Shanxi, Hebei and Gansu - have also
been hit by drought, as has the autonomous region of Ningxia. That means the
livelihoods of millions more farmers are at risk, and that drinking water is
becoming an increasingly precious commodity.
As in past disasters, the central government has responded to the crisis by
opening its coffers and mobilizing the People's Liberation Army, so far
spending 155 million yuan to combat the drought and dispatching 260,000 troops
to deliver water and to help dig wells. In addition, a relocation plan is in
the works if the drought continues through next month.
Still, angry villagers are likely to regard such measures as too little, too
late. Mother Nature may be the cause of their misery, but a woeful lack of
government planning seems to have exacerbated it.
Even before the drought, more than half of China's 1.3 billion people did not
have access to clean water, causing nearly 200 million unnecessary illnesses
annually and 60,000 premature deaths. Although China has 22% of the world's
population and only 7% of its fresh water - much of that polluted during the
past 30 years of breakneck economic growth - planning for disasters like this
was apparently kept on the back burner.
However, the central government has gone full speed ahead with lavishly
expensive water projects such as Three Gorges Dam (US$26.4 billion) and the
South-North Water Diversion Project (US$17.6 billion) that have brought little
benefit to average villagers. Indeed, China's excessive dam-building is likely
making the drought worse for many of them, since it prevents water from
reaching their remote farmland.
For years, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have blamed Chinese dams for
shrinking the Mekong River, known in China as the Lancang River, which
originates in the Tibetan Plateau and runs through Yunnan. Now the river - a
lifeline not just for people living in those parts of China but also for the
tens of millions living downriver in the nations of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar,
Thailand and Vietnam - is at its lowest level in two decades, disrupting cargo
Underscoring their alarm, members of the Mekong River Commission completed a
four-day summit in Thailand on Monday; it was the first such meeting in the
commission's 15-year history. China, which has not joined the body, was present
as an observer. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Song Tao used the occasion to
deny once again that his country was responsible for shrinking the Mekong.
While the debate continues over whether China's dam-building has effectively
"hijacked" the Mekong River, China's grandiose water projects seem to have not
helped those worst affected by the drought. Hundreds of billions of yuan were
spent on the mega-projects as reservoirs fell into disrepair and there was
inadequate investment in irrigation systems and water utilities in rural areas.
Despite the mass dash to the riches of the cities that has accompanied China's
economic boom, more than half of the nation's population continues to live in
rural areas. At least 22 million in the southwest are struggling to find a cup
of drinking water. Millions more may be suffering in the north. Their plight
seems a bigger threat to social stability than the relatively small band of
political reformers and human-rights activists who are routinely rounded up and
tossed in jail.
Three decades of economic growth averaging an astounding 9.9% annually has
allowed the Chinese government to host the Summer Olympic Games in 2008 and the
World Expo (starting next month in Shanghai) while also building enormous
hydroelectric dams, a national high-speed express rail line and highways that
span the vast nation. However, the leadership apparently could not find the
funds to shore up reservoirs and build irrigation systems for its rural poor.
Southwestern China is, in fact, relatively rich in water resources. In Yunnan,
there are more than 10,000 cubic meters of water per person, four times the
national average. Unfortunately, however, it appears that because the region
has a good water supply, investment in water infrastructure has been neglected.
Shovel-wielding PLA soldiers are unlikely to make up for the apparent neglect.
According to the World Bank, 65% of China's water goes to agriculture, but less
than half of that actually reaches crops because of faulty or non-existent
infrastructure. Meanwhile, the lack of recycling in the country means that
nearly all of the 25% of the water supply allotted to industry is dumped
untreated into China's rivers. In the developed world, 85% of that water would
Figures from the Ministry of Water Resources show that more than half of
China's farmland is without access to irrigation systems and thus dependent on
the vicissitudes of the weather for a decent harvest. For farmers who do have
access to irrigation, most of that water is wasted before it reaches their
The picture for China's reservoirs is equally bleak. Of the 87,000 that had
been built by 2007, 43% were in disrepair. In many cases, this means they are
so heavily silted that they dry up when the rains cease and flood during summer
when they reach their peak.
For the most part, then, China's rural population of 757 million has been left
to their own devices in times of acute water shortages as well as floods. Now,
if you believe mainland media reports strenuously denied by government
officials, they are abandoning their villages as the worst drought in 100 years
bears down on them.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at