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Drought saps Chinese crops

Jocelyn Ford Sep 20, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Farmers in southwest China are trying to scrape out a harvest in the middle of the worst drought that country’s seen in 50 years. Two-thirds of the rivers have dried up. And 18 million people are short of drinking water. It’s a natural disaster that would challenge any First World country. But China’s a developing economy. Trying to be an economic powerhouse. Marketplace’s Jocelyn Ford reports.

JOCELYN FORD: The rain has finally come. But it’s not much relief to farmer Qian Shu Yuan. It’s not enough. And once it stops, he still has the same old problem.

Sixty-year-old Qian raises his hoe high above his head. He thrusts it into the soil with all his might. The top inch is moist. Beneath, the earth is like dried-out Play-Doh. The wells are still dry.

Qian says unless there’s lots of rain before October, no way can he plant wheat and peas this fall. The Chinese government responded to the drought by trucking in clean drinking water. Qian is hopeful the government will also provide food if he runs out. But aid workers say he won’t be getting a lot of help from the international community.

Hope Weiner works for the International Red Cross. She says in the past three years aid for victims of natural disasters in China has dried up.

HOPE WEINER:“It really started to happen when they launched the rocket.”

The rocket that put China’s first man into space.

WEINER:“2003 was the last year we were able to get assistance fairly easily for China. After that it just seemed that all we’re getting is ‘China is so rich they can handle that, China is so rich they can handle that.'”

So, the Red Cross didn’t bother doing an international appeal. Besides, droughts are hard to raise money for. They don’t offer the heart-wrenching photo ops created by a tsunami or earthquakes.

WEINER:“But still droughts are just as devastating. And in some ways more devastating ’cause you just sort of see it slowly happening. You know, each day hoping will it rain today, will it come today, when will this end, when will this end, when will this end.”

Weiner says aid donors who balk at giving help because of China’s 9 percent growth rate aren’t doing the math.

WEINER:“I challenge anyone to take that figure and compare it with 800 million rural poor. What you’re talking about is a population twice the size of the U.S. living on $2 or less a day.”

Drought can push subsistence farmers over the edge. It means parents can’t afford schooling for the kids, or medical care for the grandparents. For sure, no one is expecting starvation in China. Farmer Qian says today’s China is a universe away from when he was a youth in the 1960s. Then, seven of his relatives died in a famine. Some in his village even ate human flesh.

But a visit to Qian’s tiny mountain-top hamlet of 580 suggests there is plenty of need for assistance. Assistance that could help the families survive future droughts.Every day, the villagers walk an hour to and from a cave, where there’s an underground spring. They use the precious water for their pigs and cows, and to water some of their crops.

The once gushing stream has been reduced to a trickle, and they don’t know how long it will keep flowing. Several years ago, the government started building a stone reservoir. But it ran out of money, so it abandoned the project.

Even as this nation is gunning to be a global economic power, in the countryside China still faces challenges of many developing countries, like poor planning and corruption. Sari Soderstrom is a development officer with the World Bank.

SARI SODERSTROM:“China already contributed aid to Africa. And China is wanting to start to play the role of donor in the developing world. People often misunderstand that, you know, China has so much money, but there is a lack of money.”

In the countryside, where few get more than a junior high education, many local governments lack expertise. Soderstrom says foreign governments have pulled back too soon from badly needed technical and training programs.

As farmer Qian shucks a shriveled ear of corn, he says the villagers have a new plan to build seven reservoirs. But they don’t have enough money, and he believes the local government is too poor.

His village would rather have help from overseas. He trusts a foreign aid group wouldn’t leave a project half done.

In Huangjin village, I’m Jocelyn Ford for Marketplace.

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