Kunming and much of the rest of Yunnan have been enjoying idyllic cloudless days for most of the last five months, but the azure skies have concealed an increasingly dire issue: Yunnan is running out of water.
In November of last year, Kunming officials were asserting that should Kunming not receive any precipitation this winter, there would still be enough water in the city's reservoirs to provide the city with water until late spring 2010.
Fast-forward to today, and the government's no-need-to-worry tone has given way to grim statistics that underscore the severity of the current drought, the worst the province has seen in 60 years.
What's the damage looking like at this point? Nearly five million people are having difficulty accessing drinking water, forest fires are up 600 percent and hydropower generation has been halved. Estimates of drought-related agricultural losses are currently at 6.5 billion yuan (US$952 million).
Aside from Kunming, areas suffering most from the drought include Lincang, Pu'er, Jianshui, Yuxi, Chuxiong, Dali and Baoshan, where 300,000 people lack access to enough drinking water. The drought is also causing water prices to skyrocket. In Wenshan one cubic meter of drinking water is reportedly selling for as much as 100 yuan.
In some of Yunnan's more remote areas, villagers have to walk to other villages and towns up to 20 kilometers away in order to buy water at high prices, then carry the water home on their backs.
The provincial government has set aside 389 million yuan for drought relief, which will be allocated for distributing drinking water to the areas most in need and irrigating more than 700,000 of the 2 million hectares of crops affected by the drought.
Officials estimate that more than 500,000 hectares of crops have already been destroyed by lack of water. Yunnan is also expected to produce 40 percent less grain during this summer's growing season. Farmers are also struggling to provide water for 3.3 million large livestock.
To make matters worse, the drought is fueling an increase in forest fires before the rainy season begins in late spring. Firefighters around the province have battled about 59 blazes in the past five weeks, according to Xinhua Net, though most have been small enough to have been successfully extinguished in one day. There is now a jumbo helicopter stationed at Kunming Wujiaba International airport to assist in firefighting.
Several fires have burned in the areas around Kunming recently, including on Qipan Mountain to the west, forests near Shuanglong in the northeast, and Changchong Mountain in the north.
We followed up our recent bicycle trip to Chongchang Mountain with a visit to survey the fire damage over the weekend. Though the mountain retains its verdant, forested slopes and panoramic views of Kunming, it has lost some of its charm: the summit is a mass of rock and black charred grass and smells strongly of smoke.
The timing for the drought conditions couldn't be much worse, as Chinese New Year approaches and people around the province stock up on fireworks to set off in celebration of spring's arrival. In light of the drought and superdry conditions, the Kunming municipal government has shortened the 25-day fireworks sales season to 12 days, with sales ending February 19.
Update: Fireworks sales are now banned after February 16.
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