The bed of Poyang Lake (Photo courtesy of Yu Wentian)
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By Fiona Dongye

Yu Wentian, who has been farming all his life, has never seen such a devastating drought, as the water level in Poyang Lake has continued to drop since July. 

“My parents are in their seventies. They have never encountered such a serious disaster,” says the 54-year-old farmer, who grows rice on 25 acres of land in Duchang county, Jiangxi province in southern China.  

The water level of Poyang Lake, the largest freshwater lake in China, retreated to 6.67 meters in November – the lowest water level on record for the same period since the recording practice was introduced in 1951, according to data from the Jiangxi Provincial Hydrological Monitoring Centre. 

“I cannot water more than four acres of my land, and the crops have died. I have lost about  RMB ¥110,000 (US $15000) this year,” Yu says. 

“As a farmer, the land they own is geographically fixed. Even if they know that there is climate change going on, they cannot move to another place.”

Another farmer Wang Zhixin, who lives in Rongbing Town, Jiangsu Province in the northeast, also suffers from extreme weather in China. 

“It has been an extremely hot and dry summer. There was only very little rain and it was sunny most of the time. I usually use water from the well for irrigation. But this year the water has dried up, which has not happened for more than ten years,” says Wang, who has been farming for 21 years. 

“Since Jiangsu has always been rich in water resources, I have never thought of  buying any irrigation equipment. The extreme weather has caught me off guard.  I can only water my field manually this year. The cost of tap water is too high, so I have to fetch water from a river a kilometre away for watering. It has made my farming work a lot harder. But I have no choice,” the farmer who grows various kinds of vegetables such as spinach and honeysuckle adds. 

Statistics from the Jiangsu Provincial Climate Centre show that the intensity of high temperatures in Jiangsu this summer is the strongest in 61 years. From June 1 to August 23, the highest temperature in the province was 42.2 ℃, and the number of high-temperature days was 34 in a year, the highest record since 1961. 

Data from the Jiangxi Provincial Hydrological Monitoring Centre (Screenshot of the website)

Wang says she lost about RMB ¥2,000 (US $280), nearly half of her monthly income as a farmer, in August, yet has not received any help or subsidies from the government.

“I think the government will only help farmers in areas where disasters are even more serious. Farmers who do not grow staple food such as grains or rice and operate a small scale of planting usually don’t get any help,” she says. 

Li Zhao, a researcher at Greenpeace Beijing, has been doing research on climate change since 2018.  

“Temperature in mainland China has been increasing in recent years, and extreme climate, including drought and flood, is occurring more frequently. Also, the increase in temperature has led to the increase of pests and pathogens, which affects the output of crops and farmers’ income,” Li says.  

Li thinks that farmers are under a lot of pressure when combating climate change. 

“As a farmer, the land they own is geographically fixed. Even if they know that there is climate change going on, they cannot move to another place,” she says. 

“According to our survey, what farmers need most are insurance subsidies after experiencing natural disasters and other kinds of financial support. Support is also needed in maintaining farmland water conservancy infrastructure,” she further adds. 

Professor Zhang Chuanhong of China Agriculture University, says climate change has a significant impact on farmers in China. 

“Farmers are forced to adjust their farming plan. For example, some farmers who used to grow rice are now growing sweet potatoes, which need less water, instead,” Zhang says. 

She thinks that there is nothing that the farmers can do while the government can step in and improve the infrastructure for agricultural usage.

“Since the climate is unpredictable, it is impossible for farmers to know whether there will be droughts or floods next year. So the most important thing is to improve the conditions of agriculture infrastructure such as construction of wells, the use of groundwater and so on. But all these plans require government effort,” she says. 

Zhang says when the farmers are being hit by large-scale climate disasters such as flooding in Henan in 2021 and severe drought in Jiangxi, little can be done.  

“Farmers can only rely on subsidies from the government for help,” she says. 

Sub-edited by Ryan Li