The morning was a bit cold, but Li Yanbo quickly got out of his warm bed when his cellphone alarm rang at 7:30. He picked up two plastic buckets and rushed to the center of the village, where a fire engine arrives once a day to provide water for residents.
Li, a 24-year-old farmer, lives in Liguan village, Songming county – about 60km away from Kunming. For the last three months, he has risen early to meet the fire truck because the village’s only reservoir has dried up. Rain hasn’t fallen for six months.
The queue is extremely long by the time Li arrives. About 4,000 thirsty villagers, representing some 600 households, come with their empty buckets and stand behind the truck.
“My family gets two or three buckets of water every day. We use them for drinking, washing and cooking,” said Li. “If we save a little every day, then once a week we can have a brief shower.”
Li planted two mu of broad beans last autumn, but he has seen no yield because of the drought. During a normal season, he would plant rice after harvesting the beans. But the field is so dry that he can’t even plough it.
“The rice is food for my family – my parents and younger brother. We have no budget to buy rice from the market,” said Li.
Like most people in his village, growing tobacco provides the family’s meal ticket. Normally, Li’s three mu of tobacco earns him near 10,000 yuan. But now, with no water for seeding, their only source of income has dried up.
Local governments are trying to help families like Li’s by hunting for new water resources. The Ministry of Land and Resources announced last week that 1,100 new wells would be dug in 10 counties, including Li’s, by the end of May. But Li is not very optimistic.
“My neighbor has a well. In the past, it was full and you could get water without using a rope, but now it is empty,” said Li. “So even if you dig a new well in some other place, the result will likely be the same.”
In Li’s opinion, there are more sustainable ways to prevent a drought, such as planting more trees.
Trees conserve water with their large roots. But in Yunnan, forest coverage has decreased from 63 percent to 33 percent over the last 18 years.
“When I was a child, my father would take me up the mountain and tell me how he used to cut down trees and use them as firewood when he was young,” said Li. “Now the land around the reservoir is barren – there are no trees protecting the underground water supply.”
Li says the drought has served as a reality check on the importance of water conservation.
“It has taught me that, if we use water efficiently, two buckets a day should be enough for four family members. We can recycle the water for multiple uses,” said Li. “Every drop of water is precious. I hope people realize this.”