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    In Central China, a Vicious Heat Wave Strikes at Worst Possible Time

    The central Henan province is often called “China’s granary” due to its vast grain farms. But a sudden drought is putting this year’s harvest under threat.

    Last year, farmers in China’s central Henan province suffered crippling losses after torrential rain hindered the summer harvest. Now, they are having to deal with the opposite problem: a sudden drought.

    The region — often referred to as “China’s granary” — is a crucial agricultural hub that accounts for one-quarter of the country’s wheat output and one-10th of its total food production.

    But the drought is putting this year’s harvest under threat, as crops wither in arid fields and farmers are forced to delay the summer planting season.

    Severe drought conditions have been recorded by 72 meteorological stations in 16 different cities across Henan, affecting 63% of the province’s arable land, according to a report by the Henan Provincial Climate Center. The drought is predicted to continue worsening until June 20.

    Periods of low rainfall often occur at this time of year in Henan, but farmers say they were unprepared for the ferocity of this year’s drought — not least because last year they faced unseasonably heavy rainfall.

    “The fields are bone-dry, with dust rising like smoke,” a 50-year-old farmer surnamed Zhang from Xinyang, southeastern Henan, told Sixth Tone. “The soil is so hard from drought, you can barely dig into it; when you do, it just crumbles away like powder.”

    The heat wave in Henan has been escalating since June 8, with temperatures in several cities surpassing 42 degrees Celsius on June 13. Wen County in the north of the province even recorded the hottest day in the region’s history, with a high of 43.4 degrees Celsius.

    To make matters worse, the region is simultaneously experiencing an acute lack of rainfall. Precipitation levels in Henan since May have been 70% lower than the historical average for this time of year, Yang Wentao, director of the flood control and drought relief department at the Henan Provincial Emergency Management Bureau, told state broadcaster CCTV on June 13.

    “Currently, more than half the meteorological stations (in Henan) have recorded at least moderate drought conditions,” said Yang. “And the area affected by severe or extreme drought continues to expand.”

    The drought has struck at a particularly crucial period for local farmers known as “three summers.” Running from mid-May to mid-June, it’s the time when farmers traditionally harvest their summer crops and then plant their next crops for the autumn.

    Farmers have been desperately trying to irrigate their fields before they dry out. A farmer surnamed Ye from Kaifeng, east of the provincial capital Zhengzhou, told domestic media he’d been irrigating his 60 mu (10 acres) of land by himself since early June, so that he could begin to plant corn.

    “Last year, due to the excessive rainfall, a lot of wheat rotted in the fields and everyone was scrambling to harvest their wheat,” said Ye, who is around 60 years old. “Unexpectedly, this year has been the opposite. The wheat harvesting and drying process was quite smooth, but now it’s time to plant corn and there’s no rainwater in sight.”

    Zhang, the farmer from Xinyang, said that he’d also been trying to keep his fields irrigated, but that the land was still too dry to plant anything except rice.

    “Yesterday it rained very little — almost as if it hadn’t rained at all — and now the sun is unbearably hot,” he said. “It hasn't rained here for two months. The rice we planted is in urgent need of water, and the autumn crops have yet to be planted.”

    As of June 12, more than 3.2 million mu of land in Henan cannot be sown due to drought, according to Yang.

    Local authorities are taking drastic steps to try and relieve the drought. Multiple localities have begun preparing to try and induce artificial rainfall, such as via cloud seeding. A large amount of extra water has also been released from the Xiaolangdi reservoir in the western Luoyang.

    These efforts are having an effect, with local authorities reporting that the amount of autumn crops affected by drought decreased to 6.7 million mu on June 16 — down 3.5 million mu compared with the day before. Summer planting has now begun on over 90% of the province’s farmland, according to official data.

    The showers over the weekend also helped, but the crisis is far from over. Farmers say they will only be able to plant their crops if they receive several more days of rainfall.

    It remains unclear to what extent the drought will affect China’s grain output this year. Though Henan is the center of the drought, farms in a number of Chinese provinces — including Hebei, Shanxi, Shandong, and Anhui — are also reportedly being affected.

    In northern and eastern parts of Henan, temperatures are forecast to remain above 35 degrees Celsius until June 19. The southeastern part of the province will see scattered showers and thunderstorms on June 18.

    (Header image: Farmers water their fields in Zhumadian, Henan province, June 6, 2024. VCG)