The original version of this article, by Keith Schneider, appeared on Circle of Blue.
Even along the middle reaches of the Yellow River, which irrigates 402,000 hectares (993,000 acres) of farmland north of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region’s provincial capital, there is still no mistaking the smell of dry earth and diesel fuel, the abiding scents of a desert province that is also among China’s most efficient grain producers.
Ningxia farmers have relied on the Yellow River since 221 BCE, when Qin Dynasty engineers clawed narrow trenches from the sand, introducing some of the first instances of irrigated agriculture on earth. Despite persistent droughts, in each of the last five years irrigation has made it possible for annual harvests to increase by an average of 100,000 metric tons.
The 2010 harvest of 3.5 million metric tons was nearly double what it was in 1990. The 3.9 million people who live and work on Ningxia’s 1.2 million farms, most no larger than three-quarters of a hectare (1.6 acres), produce the highest yields of rice and corn in the nine-province Yellow River Basin, according to central government crop statistics.
In sum, the farm productivity of this small northern China region – about the same size as West Virginia and located 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) to the west of the Bohai Sea – reflects the major shifts in geography and cultivation practices over the last generation that have made China both self-sufficient in food production and the largest grain grower in the world.
Yet Chinese farm officials here and academic authorities in Beijing are becoming increasingly concerned that China does not have enough water, good land, and energy to sustain its agricultural prowess. As Circle of Blue and the Woodrow Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum have reported in the Choke Point: China series, momentous competing trends – rising energy demand, accelerating modernization, and diminishing freshwater resources – are putting the country’s energy production and security at risk.
The very same trends also threaten China’s farm productivity. Last year, the national farm sector and the coal sector combined used 85 percent of the 599 billion cubic meters (158 trillion gallons) of water used in China.
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Keith Schneider is the senior editor of Circle of Blue and was a New York Times national correspondent for over a decade, where he continues to report as a special writer on energy, real estate, business, and technology.
Photo Credit: Used with permission, courtesy of J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue.