China is losing a million acres a year to desertification. In Dunhuang, a former Silk Road oasis in the Gobi, the resulting water shortage has become critical.
Jiang Zhenzhong is watching, helpless, as his farm at the edge of the Gobi desert runs out of water. His cotton fields are close to the dwindling Crescent Moon lake in north-eastern China. The lake is famous throughout China, attracting a million visitors a year, but now it looks more like a village pond, encircled by railings and fading fast as the desert sucks up more and more water. In the 1960s, the lake used to be 10 metres deep – now it is barely one metre.
Jiang’s farm is in Mingshan village, at the foothills of 500-metre sand dunes near Dunhuang, a key staging point on the ancient Silk Road that linked East and West for hundreds of years. The desert threatens to engulf the village, and the ancient town itself, which has seen its population soar from less than 40,000 people in the 1950s to nearly 200,000 today.
The disappearing lake at this point of the Silk Road is the most powerful symbol of an emerging water crisis. The fields around the village are brown and desolate, and it is hard to imagine how anything could grow here. Two years ago the farmers were ordered to stop digging thousands of wells to irrigate their cotton fields because the water simply was not there any more. Many of Jiang’s friends have already left for the city, joining the ranks of millions of migrant workers leaving poor provinces like Gansu, but Jiang is defiant, saying he’s planning to stay until the last drop of water is gone.
However, the pressure to find the money to send his nine-year-old daughter to high school is making life hard.
“The water is less and less every year, and without water we can’t grow the crops,” said Jiang, who wears a baseball cap at a jaunty angle and smokes copious cigarettes as he sits on a stool surrounded by drying cotton. The family’s annual income is around 7,000 yuan (£450) once fertiliser and other costs have been paid. By his reckoning, it would cost 5,000 yuan a year to send his daughter to high school, so she may have to join her 15-year-old sister working on the farm. But he is staying positive. The family earns enough for him to be able to afford a motorbike and a television. “We have a 21-inch set – big TVs are bad for your eyes. I use the bike to bring the kids to school. Kids have it good these days, don’t they? We had to walk to school in our day,” he said, smiling.