ZHONGZHUANG, China (Reuters) - Across the brown hills of Zhongzhuang Village in northwest China, farmers count the costs of a changing climate in lost crops, dry wells and lives weighed down by poverty.
Villagers here plough their narrow, terraced fields dug into the brittle slopes much as they have for generations, with wooden ploughs and donkeys. But the seemingly timeless rhythms of this village in Yongjing County, Gansu province, have been changing.
Over the past 20 years, summers have become hotter and drier, rains now come later and droughts more often, and winter now sets in late and mild enough so farmers can grow corn, which would not mature here 10 or more years ago, said Pu Yanjun, resting at midday from plowing his soil before winter.
“Water is our biggest problem, Gansu, they say, has nine years of drought every 10 years,” he said, hunkered over a lunch of flat bread and potatoes in his neat courtyard home.
“Now the rain often doesn’t come when we need it, and then it rains when we don’t need it. If it rains now, it will be useless anyway.”
The threats from climate change for areas such as Zhongzhuang are at the heart of negotiations 6,843 km (4252 miles) away in Copenhagen, where leaders will be locked in talks this week seeking a new international pact on fighting global warming.
Greenhouse gases from human activity are trapping more solar heat in the air, feeding planetary warming likely to stoke droughts, disrupt rainfall, and threaten crops in many areas.
For China, with its 750 million strong farming population, such changes could strain food security in coming decades. Poor villages in environmentally stressed areas such as Yongjing County are likely to suffer first and worst.
“Once you get into the remote communities in poorer parts of China, people are very exposed to climate hazards,” said Declan Conway, an expert on climate change and agriculture at the University of East Anglia in Britain who has studied what could happen to China’s farmers.
“Those people are already quite vulnerable, and it’s quite likely that with an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events, they’re going to feel it more in the future.”
For Ma Tuili, a 25-year-old mother, the pressures of this harsh landscape come down to the buckets of water she hauls from the family well each day, measuring them out so supplies last her family of five through the usually dry winter until rain arrives.
She and the 100 or so other residents of Zhongzhuang are mostly Hui, a Muslim group ethnically close to the country’s majority Han Chinese people. They grow wheat, potatoes, and corn, and herd goats and occasionally cattle.
Their daily diet is potatoes, flat bread baked on the side of stoves, and noodles. Meat is a luxury many said they ate perhaps two or so times a year, during the Lunar New Year and Muslim festival of Eid. Ma said a bad harvest and debts accumulated last year had made even that impossible.
“We didn’t have meat for the (Lunar) New Year this year, so I fried dough balls instead,” she said, between bouts of heaving water from the well. “I was thinking, ‘Why can other people eat well but we can’t?’ We work hard here, but we don’t get rich.”
Farmers said fields here produced about 100 kg of summer wheat per mu, less than a third of the national average, on family plots of two or three mu. Most said their families earned between 2000 yuan and 3000 yuan a year — some much more — skidding close to outright poverty, especially in bad years.
The changing climate has been making it harder for them to climb out of poverty, despite government programs to raise incomes and improve water availability, found a recent study of Yongjing and other vulnerable parts of China sponsored by Oxfam and Greenpeace.
“There’s less rain than before. The droughts have been getting worse,” said Cai Wenfu, a 20-year-old farmer, resting after coaxing a braying donkey to finish plowing a plot.
“The hardest part of life is not having enough rain so there is not enough to eat. It’s not like that every year, but we were down to two meals of bread a day in the last bad drought.”
The study found that since the 1980s, average temperatures here have risen, rain has decreased, and droughts are more frequent. Average annual precipitation was 323 millimeters in the 1970s; between 2008 and 2008 the average was 279 mm.
“There’s an association between these changes and reversion to poverty,” said Lin Erda, one of China’s top experts on climate change and agriculture, who helped write the study.
“There are uncertainties about how global warming will affect agriculture, but the risks are big, and they will first hurt the farmers in arid and semi-arid vulnerable regions.”
Without potentially expensive adaptation through improved irrigation and improved crops strains, average productivity of major grains per every acre of land planted could fall between 13 and 24 percent in coming decades, said Lin, who works at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing.
In Zhongzhuang, the hazards of weather did not act alone, but rather in league with illness, debt, or family problems.
Cai Yanguo said the family’s main well ran dry last year and they had to borrow money to buy water trucked in. She had not heard from her husband, away working, for many months and her daughter, Cai Wenlan, now 14, quit school for lack of money.
A neighbor, Cai Yanming, said his family of four could not afford proper medical care for his wife, Fa Tumei, suffering from a bad spine and painful abdominal problems.
“We’re running out of money. I don’t want to go away for work but there’s no choice,” said Cai Yanming, a slight, haggard 37-year-old.
China’s leaders, too, are openly worried about global warming threatening efforts to cut poverty and maintain food security.
The country’s grain production has recently reached record levels, despite damage from droughts, floods and frost. In 2008, China enjoyed a fifth straight year of bumper harvests, with grain output at a record 525 million tonnes.
But China’s top meteorologist, Zheng Guoguang, has warned that global warming raised the risk of a stretch of bad weather that could be disastrous for the world’s most populous nation.
In October, Premier Wen Jiabao, who will go to the Copenhagen summit later this week, visited Dingxi in Gansu, near to Yongjing, and warned of the environmental strains and water shortages threatening the region’s farmers.
The government in Yongjing has promoted building wells that trap rainwater and help families endure dry seasons and drought. Wealthier villages use plastic sheeting to keep more moisture in the soil, and experts are promoting drought-resistant crops.
While wheat crops have been buffeted by drought in recent years, the warmer autumns have allowed farmers to shift to corn, which is planted and matures later.
But biggest adaptive step China’s farmers are likely to take is moving away to towns and cities to find work, poorly paid but with better prospects than eking a living from the dry land.
“Everyone is forced to go out to work, even if you’re not willing to. I’m older but I also have to, said Zhang Dezhong, a man in his 50s who said he had found work digging on road works.