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In pictures: How China’s worst drought transforms life and a landscape

China’s worst drought on record is reshaping the landscape and life around one of the country’s megacities, as these images show.

August 24, 2022
By Mark Schiefelbein
24 August 2022

River bottoms reduced to cracked earth attract the curious, some taking selfies on the sun-baked expanse exposed by the receding waters.

Farmers lament their yellowed rice stalks, their famed hot pepper plants bereft of almost all fruit, their dry reservoirs.

The very landscape of Chongqing, a megacity that also takes in surrounding farmland and steep and picturesque mountains, has been transformed by an unusually long and intense heatwave and an accompanying drought.

A region reshaped by the dry

Chinese meteorologists are calling it the nation’s strongest heat wave since record keeping began in 1961, based on its intensity, geographic area and duration.

Now into its third month, it has surpassed the previous record of 61 days in 2013. Temperatures are topping 40C in cities and villages across southern China. Chongqing in the southwest has been hit particularly hard.

At Longquan village in the rolling hills south of urban Chongqing, a farmer walks across cracked mud at the bottom of a community reservoir that was once full of water.

The reservoir’s retaining wall sprang a leak a few months ago, and with the heat and drought, only a puddle a few metres across remains.

To the north, Li Siming walks through his fields yellowing rice plants in Mu’er town as the sound of jets landing at a nearby airport echoed off the hillsides. With the supply limited, the communal water that would normally go to his rice crops was diverted to fruit orchards instead.

“We pray to the god, but the god wouldn’t rain. We ask the local government, but the government wouldn’t give us water,” Li said.

Gan Bingdong uses a hose to water a dying cabbage plant at his farm in Longquan village. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

He is using expensive tap water to irrigate his fields. He estimates his harvest from three hectares of land will be 400kg of rice, less than a third of his usual one. Farmers have moved forward the harvest by half a month so the crops won’t dry up, but before the grains are fully developed.

A strong high-pressure ridge parked over western Russia is behind the heatwaves in both China and Europe this summer. The extreme heat is likely connected to human-caused climate change — though scientists have yet to do the calculations and computer simulations to say that for certain.

Sweat forms on the forehead of Gan Bingdong as he stands amid vegetable plots on a hot day at his farm in Longquan village in south-western China’s Chongqing Municipality on Saturday. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

The Jialing River, a tributary of the Yangtze, has shrunk in places to less than half the width of its channel through the heart of Chongqing.

Residents and visitors make their way across boulders on the exposed riverbed to pose for selfies and look at the remaining flow of water. At dusk, a squad of uniformed officers uses megaphones to order the throngs back to the higher ground of an adjacent promenade.

Along the Yangtze, which also runs through downtown Chongqing, families and children play in the shallow water near the base of an exposed bridge support column.

Muddy streaks along the column more than 8 metres above their heads mark previous river levels. As darkness falls, a woman, illuminated by her smartphone, sits on a rocky outcropping that would normally be submerged in the middle of the river.

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