Into the Heart of Guangdong's Drought

Feature Story - 2005-06-03
Southern China has been experiencing its worst drought in over 50 years. One of the worst hit provinces was Guangdong, with its northern areas bearing the brunt. The drought may have been temporarily relieved by recent torrential rains but many parts of northern Guangdong still face the dire consequences of this drought, and the worsening and more frequent ones widely predicted by China’s climate scientists.

Long term drought in Guangdong Province, a symptom of global warming.

Earlier this year, Greenpeace's Climate Change Team' traveled to northern Guangdong to document the impacts of the drought in northern Guangdong. . Guangdong has been in the grip of this most severe drought since October 2003. Our team visited the Qingyuan, Ruyuan and Shaoguan areas in the north of the province. We have witnessed first-hand the devastation caused by the drought including parched landscapes, dry riverbeds and ponds, reservoirs at record low-levels, fire-ravaged forests and failed crop harvests.

Our path northwards took us past Chashan and its surrounding villages. A beekeeper's dust-heavy tent in front of a patch of dead woods attracted our attention. His row of bee hives look quite out of the place in the backdrop of a bleak landscape of drought.  "How is your business here?" We asked him. He first showed us his range of honey products one by one, then shook his head, confessing that there was really no business here. He planned to travel soon to search for new sources of honey. Just a few metres below his tent, we saw several huge fish ponds also dried up with devastating scenes of parched beds littered with dry seaweed and dead shellfish and mummified shrimps. There were no fish skeletons. The fish were all trawled from bottom and sold to the market despite size and age. We remember the story we watched on TV how local Guangdong farmers had been sacrificing their fish farms by diverting the water to irrigate their rice paddies. They were in need of money to send their children to college. Yet by doing that, they suffered double economic loss. They lost the fish ponds and the rice paddies were beyond remedy. 

The beekeeper said the owners of the fish ponds were a few households of immigrants who were originally from poorer areas. This year they not only abandoned their grain, evacuated their fish pond, but had to face the severe challenge of drinking water shortage. I looked down the well in one backyard, a long tube of over 13 metres digging into the heart of land, its bottom only half covered by water, like a mocking dark mirror, catching light from the sky.  Near the well was an old granny taking care of her grandson, she told us that the baby's mother went to fetch drinking water from afar in buckets twice a day. Her wrinkles were weighed down with anguish: "we don't produce any rice this year and the market price (for rice) is driven so high. How can we make through the next year?"

The nasty tenacity and severity of the drought have resulted in a substantial reduction in the agricultural productivity in northern Guangdong. What's more,the drought has also delayed critical preparations for the onset of cold weather. The combined impacts of the drought and the cold cast a fatal blow to this year's harvest. We witnessed the terrible waste that this drought has wrought in Qingyuan where the withered rice, half as its normal height, were left deliberately in filed as cattle fodder.

As we travelled further northwards the impacts of the drought on the people who depend on the land for their livelihood and water source escalated. Shaoguan area is prone to suffer from drought due to its Caste landscape, where the topsoil is so thin that it could not hold water. Local agriculture solely relies on the rainwater. After half a year without a drop of rain, devastation is complete.

The record-low rainfall and dry weather in the region created tinderbox conditions in the forested areas threatening large swathes of land. For example, on October 21, 2004, a forest fire enveloped a large area of forest near Yingde city, destroying over 1,000 mu (66.66 hectares) of pine forest. On our visit three months later, we found the scene was still overwhelming. As our car pushed forward, scorched mountain bodies were undulating like a running nightmare of the darkest night, with trees of a lingering fiery red standing starkly on hill tops. At first sight, it was sheer beauty, though in a surrealistic sense. It was only later when we were in the burnt forests themselves that we acquired the reality sense of the ravage. The whole mountain was carbonized. The land was crisp with the burnt carpet of pine needles, and bits of tree bark gave in to a gentle touch of fingertips and became ashes. Remnants of coniferous forested hillsides left by the fire ran on for miles in one direction while in another direction looks very eerie and unreal in contrast to the normal green scene. 66-year-old Guo told us that this year is the driest year in his memory. His rice granaries are all empty. He showed us a demarcation line of red vs green in the fern at the foot of mountain, telling us that his village was severely threatened by the forest fire but it was extinguished just in time as it lapped at the edge of his settlement. And this was where the fire was stopped.

According to the Guangdong Meteorological Bureau, the 2004 rainfall in the Qingyuan area is the lowest on record. Drought is a cumulative process. The rainfall in the first half of 2004 resulted in 67 percent less rainfall by September. There was no rainfall at all in October. River levels also reached all time lows with some even drying up completely affecting both water supply and electricity generation. The level of the Beijiang (North) River receded as low as 4.86 m, even lower than thelowest historical record of 5.06 m. (Source: Qingyuan Hydrological Station) We witnessed a large number of ships stranded by the low river level in waiting for rain to replenish the upstream Feilaixia reservoir in order to continue their navigation.

Beyond the devastation that the drought has wrought through huge agricultural loss, forest fire, halting navigation on the region's transport arteries - the rivers - it has also resulted in serious pollution. When we reached the beautiful town of Daqiao in Shaoguan district we were met with the scene of a drying river with garbage piled high on the steep riverbanks. The record low river level had exposed the full horror of the town's lax waste disposal activities. The stinking heaps of riverbank garbage comes from government agencies, schools and even hospitals. Worse still, the polluted river is Daqiao's main source of water. Townspeople have lived in the pipe-dream of hoping that the garbage would be flushed downriver by the usual spring rains - not this time. The garbage is there for all to see and to feel shame for creating them. And that's where they fetch their daily drinking water too.

Evidence shows that the increasing incidence and severity of drought in Guangdong  creates a series of compounding crises leading to a domino effect of environmental deterioration, such as continuous reduction of water resources, decrease in river run-off and water level, over-exploitation of ground water; reduction of water level in lakes, and decreasing surface area of lakes, dried up river beds and marine tides feeding into fresh water rivers. These are all ramifications of the impacts of climate change caused by human activity. Since the 1980s, with global warming becoming more serious, Guangdong has experienced more droughts, impacting over 500,000 hectares of land. The real impacts of long drought periods in Guangdong could probably never be accurately assessed. What is clear for all to see though is that the droughts result in huge economic losses in addition to the severe environmental impacts as livelihoods are so closely tied to the land in areas such as northern Guangdong.. Between 1950 and 1980, there were only four droughts affecting over 800,000 hectares of land. But in the past quarter century, droughts affecting over 800,000 hectares have occurred eleven times.

Mr. Jia Tianqing, deputy director of the Guangdong Meteorogical Bureau reports that the Bureau's experts have analysed meteorological records for Guangdong province for the last 100 years. The analysis shows that Guangdong's climate system is experiencing a remarkable warming process. Moreover, the impacts that Guangdong has experienced as a result of climate change is in accordance with the general trend in China as a whole. China's climate scientists have forecast that over the next 50--100 years, Guangdong province's climate will continue to warm. The scientist acknowledge that this kind of climate change is caused by a combination of natural climate undulations and the human-induced greenhouse effect.

In the 1990's Guangdong's warming trend continued including a much higher incidence of severe weather events such as.the ultra destructive typhoon of (1996), the 1994 flood disaster, extreme cold in 1996 and 1999, and the worst drought on record recently. All are rare events in Guangdong's climate history. Economic losses as a result of climate change in the 90's averaged 12.2 billion yuan each year, five times the average annual economic losses of 2.6 billion yuan during the 80's.

Last year, Guangdong's drought has affected 40 million people, with 9 million had difficulty in accessing drinking water. 5,100,000 square meters of agriculture land was under impact, causing direct economic loss over 6 billion RMB. Besides, during that time, most of the small hydro stations suspended their operation, and the economic loss amounts up to 2 billion yuan.

In our investigation trip, what we found ironic is where people just got prepared for flooding, drought struck. The unexpectedness and frequency of extreme weather events made people's lives very difficult. And drought, together with salty tides feeding into rivers, sea-level rise and other disasters are listed as the ten extreme weather events that have a strong link to climate change, according to Guangdong meterological experts. The human-induced problems that Guangdong is facing are clear for all to see but so, increasingly, are the solutions.

As a leading industrial province in China, Guangdong is power-hungry. The increasing energy demand if sought from fossil fuels will clearly aggravate the already existing environmental problems. As one of the provinces in China with the richest wind resource, Guangdong has great potential to showcase a solution to its own economic bottleneck and environmental problems by switching to clean and renewable energy. Greenpeace have been working to illuminate that it is the right time to make the right strategic energy choice for Guangdong. A mechanism exists, the Kyoto Protocol, to enable the investment required to harness the provinces' huge wind resources. China has already passed its first Renewable Energy law to promote the exploitation of renewable energies such as wind power. With a favourable policy framework and international technology and financial transfer, wind energy takes a fraction of the time to become more profitable and prevail as a mainstream energy choice.