China debates whether human activity or nature is to blame for drought

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The images are heart-rending, farmers kneeling over the cracked earth that looks to be straight out of a post-apocalyptic movie, the dust swirling in the wind.

But what underlies China’s worst drought in nearly a century is a matter of great debate. Is it Mother Nature or human failure?

Beyond the official explanation of “abnormal weather,” Chinese environmentalists are pointing to deforestation, pollution, dams, overbuilding and other man-made factors. Scientists are searching for clues about why rain hasn’t come in some parts of the country.

At its worst, the drought has left parched more than 16 million acres of farmland in more than four provinces, threatening the livelihood of more than 50 million farmers, according to government statistics. Up to 20 million people have been left without drinking water.

The Chinese army and paramilitary have been deployed in some hard-hit areas to deliver water, while residents of some mountainous villages inaccessible by motor vehicle have had to hike hours downhill and climb up again lugging plastic jugs of water in bamboo backpacks.

An unusually long dry season — which has stretched from September to the present — is at least part of the problem, but the underlying reasons are less clear. Some Chinese scientists believe that abnormally cold, wet weather in the north of the country is also linked to the drought in the southwest.

“The Earth is reacting to climate change,” said Kuang Yaoqiu, a professor with the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, who predicted the drought last year. “China’s mainstream meteorologists haven’t accepted these theories. It will take time.”

In Chinese government circles, many people still subscribe to Mao Tse-tung’s famous dictum that ‘’man should conquer nature,” but that’s proving difficult to accomplish.

The drought-related losses are both economic and highly personal. For all the tea in China, this year’s crop is expected to be a fraction of what it was in previous years because of drought conditions in Yunnan and Guangxi provinces, home to much of the tea production.

“There are huge cracks in the ground. The leaves on the trees are so dry they looked like they were set on fire,” said Wu Liuzhi, manager of a tea processing plant in Guangxi’s Lingyun county.

At home, it is just as miserable. “People can’t brush their teeth every day. If there is a little water you want to wash your face.” Wu wouldn’t say when she last washed her hair — only that “we hold on until you can’t stand it anymore.”

In Yunnan province, the traditional water splashing festival practiced by the Dai ethnic minority to celebrate the mid-April New Year’s holiday was this year reduced to a “water sprinkling” festival.

In response, the Chinese government has deployed the mighty arsenal of what is called the weather modification bureau, using rockets and planes to shoot more than 6,000 shells into the clouds in hopes of inducing rain.

Yu Bohan, 27, a tea farmer from Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna region, said that her family’s crop of 330 pounds is less than one-third of normal and that the government’s rain-making efforts may be to blame.

“Some villagers suspect that the weather has become angry with us for shooting too many of those artificial rockets,” Yu said.

Some scientists say the fault lies with the destruction of the natural forest and the replanting of cash crops that suck up too much water. Among the notorious water-guzzlers are rubber trees and eucalypts, which are used for paper and pulp production and are so vigorous that farmers sometimes claim to hear them growing at night.

“In the rainy season, the forest holds in the water and releases it slowly in the dry season. That is the natural ecological function of the forest,” said Ma Jun, a well-known water expert whose writings about China’s water crisis have been likened to Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring.” “The drought is obviously caused by lack of rainfall, but the deforestation hurts our ability to adapt to unfavorable climate.”

Yunnan, the hardest-hit province, is home to China’s last swatch of rain forest and many of its glaciers, which gives it an unusually fragile ecosystem. The largest lake in the province, Dian Chi, which used to supply drinking water to the provincial capital, Kunming, is now so polluted that the water cannot even be used for agriculture.

There are also a large number of dams in the region that critics say have damaged the ecosystem of the province. The most controversial is the still-under-construction Xiaowan dam, which will be the second-largest hydroelectric power station in China after the Three Gorges Dam. Environmentalists say that the dam has reduced the water in the Mekong in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam to its lowest level in 50 years, exacerbating drought conditions in those countries as well.

But Chinese government officials have denied responsibility for the water shortage.

“Statistics show that recent droughts in the Mekong River downstream [are] caused by severely dry weather,” Vice Foreign Minister Song Tao said at a Mekong River Council meeting April 5 in Thailand. “The Mekong River’s low water level is not related to hydropower plants.”

Tommy Yang of The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.