XIKOU VILLAGE, China — The muggy summer afternoon started like any other for Mao Juxian — with a sink full of dishes to wash at her riverside diner. But within minutes rain began pouring, quickly turning things wrong.
After glimpsing outside her window, Mao was shocked: The river was overflowing and heading straight at her. The 51-year-old and her elderly sister rushed to move whatever they could grab to the upstairs, but the flood was moving faster.
In less than an hour, the water inside the house reached their knees, forcing the sisters to retreat to the second floor. But the flood didn’t stop its chase. Several hours later, it cut off electricity and phone service, swept away furniture and almost reached the ceiling of their first floor.
“We were scared to death, worrying our house would collapse any minute. For the whole night, none of us dared to sleep,” recalled Mao. Instead, they were helplessly watching the water rise. Luckily, the flood stopped two feet short of them, and finally faded away in the morning.
Three days later, while carrying a wet dining table outside to dry, Mao said she never imagined going through a flood. “This year, we didn’t even have rain until two weeks ago. And the river had so little water that parts of its bottom were parched.”
Such sudden flood from dried-up rivers is rare. But that deluge would not be the last — nor would it be the worst. Over the past three weeks, China’s southern provinces, many of which have yet to recover from an unusual months-long drought, entered a battle against numerous deadly floods.
In one such province called Hunan, a cluster of villages that this year saw only one third of the average rainfall, suddenly experienced the heaviest rain in the past 300 years. That caused mudslides that claimed the lives of 20 villagers.
Nationwide, the floods killed dozens more, forced millions of people to leave their homes and mounted an extra $5 billion on top of economic losses from the preceding drought.
While a rainy June is normal here, such extreme weather and the dramatic shift from dry to wet aren’t, says Yang Fuqiang, senior adviser on climate and energy at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“This is a clear proof of climate change,” Yang said. “And it hits less developed regions hardest, making the poor even poorer.”
That’s pretty much the situation in Xikou village and its neighboring Kaihua County, where water resources are almost four times the national average and yet villagers are increasingly feeling the pinch in getting water.
For Zhou Wenhan, watering his riverbank fields is no longer an easy matter. Over the past years, Zhou witnessed the river level shrinking to a point that no water is able to flow into channels and to reach his fields. And alternative ways like pumping water from underground were abandoned due to prohibitive costs of the operation.
While his neighbors can carry water from wells, Zhou can’t. The 64-year-old’s left hand is paralyzed, leaving him at the mercy of the weather. And this year, as his prayer for rain wasn’t answered, Zhou had to make a tough decision.
“I switched from growing rice to growing peanuts,” he said. “Peanuts can grow with little water, but it only generates half of my previous income.”
Even for villagers who are physically and financially stronger than Zhou and can soften their dependence on the weather, the missing rain drops didn’t go unfelt.
Li Zibing, a vegetable grower in neighboring Huadong village, uses a pumping system together with some 400 farmers during low rainfall. But this year’s extreme low isn’t something that the pump could help with.
For every 15 minutes of pumping water, villagers had to wait half an hour until the pump recovered. And not enough water could be fetched and led to their thirsty crops, said Li, adding that the whole village craved rain.
The rain did come finally, but not in a way they expected.
Livelihoods going down the drain
On June 15, a record rain — the heaviest in the past half century — dropped on Li’s village. It inundated his six-foot-tall greenhouses and destroyed his half-year’s hard work within hours.
“My peppers had just gotten ripe to be sold. But there is nothing that I can do with them now. By sun rise, they will all go bad,” said Li, while staring at a field of peppers covered with a thick layer of brown mud.
“Growing vegetables is my only income,” he continued. “I am now 50. Even if I want to work in factories, nobody would hire me because I am too old. What else can I do for a living?”
Several miles away, another farmer was asking the same question. Handicapped Zhou stood in his peanut field, which a few days ago was rich with green sprouts but is now a mix of muddy dirt and garbage left by the flood.
“I planted those peanuts with only one hand. But when the flood came, I could do nothing except watching,” sighed Zhou. “The flood was so fierce that it even crashed a brick house next to my field. Who dared to go save crops at such time?”
Zhou already restarted planting, and this time he is betting on corn. Still, he isn’t sure whether this could help him make ends meet. “Even if I successfully grow the new crops and harvest it, the cost has already doubled. And I have to spend extra cash on fertilizers since my rich soil was washed away by the flood.”
While Zhou attributes it all to natural forces, some villagers are pointing fingers at a different suspect.
Minor impacts for experts, dire consequences for farmers
“We believe the flood was caused by upstream hydropower stations which released water amid heavy rains and didn’t even notify us,” said Lin Weishun, a 48-year-old who runs a pig farm along a river at a nearby village called Yexi.
“Before the flood, the river level was very low. Even if rain continued pouring for another few days, it should not have risen so abruptly,” Lin explained.
While there is no evidence to support Lin’s claim, it isn’t uncommon for hydropower stations to empty their water reservoirs before heavy rains. And if that isn’t timed well, experts say, the released water would intensify floods downstream, though only making a slight impact that would last no more than a day.
However, for villagers like the pig farmer Lin, a slight change is big enough to be tipped over the edge.
As the river water came flooding, Lin rushed to save his pigs. With water up to his waist, he struggled to catch dozens of small pigs and carried them upstairs to his home. But there was little Lin could do with the bigger ones — each weighing more than 400 pounds.
“I called my brothers to come and help, but the roads were already blocked by the flood. It was so distressing when I saw the flood sweeping away my pigs, but I couldn’t do anything,” Lin said, while smoking one cigarette after another.
The flood took off with two dozen pigs worth $15,000, but what wasn’t washed away is Lin’s loan. To build this pig farm, he borrowed $2,300 from the bank — which he would pay back if the pigs weren’t lost. Meanwhile, Lin will have to bear another several hundred dollars for rebuilding his pig sheds, which collapsed in the flood.
And, until the sheds are ready, pigs are running day and night in Lin’s kitchen and living room, leaving their smelly gifts behind. But Lin said he is used to the smell.
“I didn’t take one day off since I built the farm three years ago. Even during the Chinese New Year, I was still here to clean up pig waste,” he said. “And all this hard work is now gone with the flood.”
Photo courtesy of Lin Weishun