The following sections present the results of the questionnaire survey, semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions. The main themes are ordered as follows: general overview of the communities and their livelihood income sources, experiences of recent climate variability, effects on livelihoods and response measures.
The Han ethnic group was predominant in the northern irrigation and southern mountainous areas, and the Hui minority predominant in the central arid area. The percentage of income from different sources in the three different areas (Fig. 3) shows respondents in the northern irrigation area received income mainly from growing cereals (40 %), working in urban areas (23 %), or from raising domestic animals (13 %), with limited income from growing cash crops and local businesses. In the central arid area income derived mainly from working in urban areas (31 %), raising domestic animals (23 %), government subsidies (16 % of total income) and growing grain crops (17 %). One exception was Tongxin where growing grain crops was more important as water is available from the Yellow River. In the southern mountainous area income mainly derived from working in urban areas (27 %), government subsidies (23 %) and growing cereals and cash crops (25 %).
Key factors that were felt to affect farmers’ income (Supplementary Figure S3) included hazards (mainly meteorological ones) and diseases (crop and livestock). Production expenditure, resources, and agricultural policies were the other factors most frequently mentioned. The impact of production expenditure on income was felt most strongly in the northern irrigation area, which is associated with more intensive farming and livestock rearing.
Perceptions of recent climate variability and the most serious hazards
In all three areas most respondents believed precipitation was lower than a decade before and felt that they had experienced more droughts in the last decade. Drought was identified most frequently as the main meteorological hazard in all three areas (Supplementary Figure S4). In the central arid and southern mountainous areas, 99 % and 100 % of respondents believed there had been some increases in drought frequency, respectively, with similar proportions ranking drought as the most serious hazard. In the northern irrigation area interviews and focus group discussions confirmed that respondents felt climate had become drier but that had no significant effects on their crop yields. In some cases, net income had declined mainly because more irrigation was required but also due to greater expenditure on pesticides and the warmer climate resulting in more frequent outbreaks of pests. 87 % of respondents reported that drought was more frequent and 83 % felt that drought was the most important hazard in the northern area.
The precipitation series (Fig. 2 right panel) show that it was mainly the 3 years prior to and during the survey that were much drier than usual. The annual precipitation in these years was 26 %, 32 % and 3 % lower than that in the period of 1961 to 2006 in the northern, central, and southern areas, respectively. This is likely to have influenced respondent’s perceptions of higher frequency of drought. The records since 2006 show a recovery in two of the three areas suggesting the droughts were fluctuations, not part of a long-term drying trend.
Frost was also identified as a problem and respondents noted that increased exposure to this hazard had been partly caused by their adaptations to local warming by expanding their planting area of winter wheat to higher elevations. In the central arid area, sand storms, high temperatures, frost and frozen ground were identified as problems but considered to be less important than drought.
Cross-referencing the rankings of hazard importance with climate data and the results from the focus group discussions highlighted several examples of particular hazards and these are summarised in Table 1. Interviews and focus group discussions in the central arid area confirmed that drought was the main factor to affect farmers’ incomes. Farmers mainly dependent on agricultural activities were more affected and when serious drought occurred they lost all income from planting crops and breeding livestock. In addition, grain price increased during drought so that expenditure on grain purchase increased substantially. Drought therefore resulted in multiple impacts on farmers’ incomes due to combined effects from reduced grain production and livestock sales, and greater expenditure on cereal foodstuffs and drinking water which became more expensive due to scarcity (see Section 4.2). In the southern mountainous area discussions generally found that farmers who relied solely on agricultural activities were most vulnerable to meteorological hazards which in some cases could reduce farmers’ incomes by up to 50 %−60 %.
Impacts on farmers’ livelihoods and agricultural production
The effects of the worst drought in living memory differed across the three agricultural systems. Overall, respondents in the northern irrigation area experienced least impact. Nevertheless, recent climate variability and particularly the major drought, had clearly touched many aspects of farmers’ livelihoods throughout the region.
Access to water for drinking and irrigation
The northern irrigation area is supplied from the Yellow River and farmers generally had access to both tap water and well water and did not see this as an important issue (Supplementary Table S3). However, of the three surveyed villages from 40 % to 62 % of the respondents felt it had become more difficult to obtain water for irrigation as a result of reduced precipitation, droughts, rationing of Yellow River water and increased water tariffs.
In the central arid area 94 % of respondents felt it had become increasingly difficult to obtain drinking water. In Tongxin and Yanchi counties drinking water was secure for most people and animals, though in some localities people had to buy water during drought. Farmers who were reliant on rainwater collection cellars in Haiyuan had to buy water during dry periods as their storage was depleted, in some cases from sources that were 80 km from their village. Some local people with tractors transported water in and sold it to local households. Interviews and focus group discussions showed that prior to 2002 farmers’ water resources were mainly from rain water harvesting but since then farmers had to increasingly buy water due, in some degree, to the effects of the drought. The average payment for a two-person household was at least 500 RMB. The average net income of households in the surveyed counties in the central and southern areas in 2005 ranged from 1446 RMB in Haiyuan to 2004 RMB in Yanchi (NSB 2006). This suggests that in some cases more than 30 % of farmers’ income was spent on drinking water. This was in areas where a considerable proportion of their income came from subsidies through the ‘Grain for Green’ ProgrammeFootnote 2 and temporary paid work.
In the southern mountainous area, Jingyuan used groundwater for humans and livestock but droughts had led to lower water levels, with less groundwater available to farmers, although basic water needs were satisfied. Xiji had more available water, however, it was still common for farmers to have to buy it or augment supply with groundwater.
Impacts of drought on grain self-sufficiency and grain price
Respondents were asked about the effects of the most serious drought on their grain production and what this meant for their own household consumption, with varying results across the region (Supplementary Figure S5). Respondents found it difficult to directly quantify changes in yield or production in absolute terms. Least impact was felt in the northern irrigation area where roughly 90 % of respondents ticked either “having enough food to eat“ or ”no serious impacts on their agricultural production“. All three survey villages in the southern mountainous area had at least 45 % of their respondents who ticked ”insufficient food“. 10–30 % of the respondents ticked ”no yield’ and more than 74 % of respondents ticked “serious impacts on their grain production”. The perception of drought impact was the most serious in the central arid area. All four response options were fairly evenly selected by respondents in Tongxin (because the village had irrigation where water rationing was more of an issue than drought), whilst 95 % of respondents in Yanchi and Haiyuan selected the worst category. Field investigations in Yanchi and Haiyuan found that reduced precipitation (in Haiyuan this had been for five successive years) had produced major impacts on local grain production. The increased frequency and intensity of droughts had forced farmers out of arable farming and as a result subsidies from the ‘Grain for Green’ Programme had become a vital income source for most farmers. Around 60 % of respondents in the northern irrigation and southern mountainous areas felt that meteorological hazards could increase grain prices whilst 80 % felt this in the central arid area.
Impacts on production through cropping patterns and sown areas
85 % and 43 % of the respondents in the central arid and southern mountainous areas, respectively, indicated that drought had been a major factor causing change in cropping pattern and sown area during the last decade (Supplementary Figure S6). In the central arid area, weather and climate (decreased precipitation and increased droughts) were indicated to be the main reasons for change, above other factors such as market factors and distribution of irrigation water. Unsurprisingly farmers in all three areas were inclined to choose crops that were adaptive, multi-functional and high yielding with better economic returns, such as corn, potato, Chinese Wolfberry and sunflowers. In the southern mountainous area there were different responses between counties; 60 % of respondents in Xiji had changed their cropping pattern whereas 60 % in Jingyuan and Pengyang had not. Cropping patterns in Jingyuan and Pengyang had changed because of the influence of the ‘Grain for Green’ Programme. In Xiji the drought resistance of potato and its high market price were major reasons given by respondents for the increase in planting area.
Respondents also noted changes in sown area for more advantageous crops. The reasons given included recent climate variability, change of market price and policy guidance. For example, in Haiyuan the local government had introduced watermelon in response to the drier conditions. Covering the ground surrounding the watermelon with small stones enhances moisture retention, improving drought resistance. This crop also had very strong market potential. Insights from the focus group discussions showed that the sown area for maize planting contracted because soil moisture was insufficient for germination. This is supported in the Ningxia Statistical Yearbook (NSB 2006) which shows a 5 % decrease in sown area for maize in 2005 compared to 2004 across the whole region. In our surveyed counties in the central and southern areas the sown area for maize decreased even more, ranging from 14 % to 46 %, compared to 2004. When there is insufficient soil moisture farmers plant potato instead of maize or wheat. Therefore the sown area for potato increased during the major drought and in other less extreme dry years (NBSC, 1999, 2000, 2005, and 2006). The sown area for winter wheat has increased associated with a northward expansion of the sown area and this has led to higher incidence of frost injury.
Agricultural measures to cope with Ningxia’s dry and variable climate
The perennially dry climate and limited soil moisture availability defines the nature and challenges of agricultural production in Ningxia. These challenges are greatly exacerbated by periodic drought. Naturally, farmers adopt a wide range of measures to retain and enhance soil moisture. In addition, state services support many new agricultural technologies and methods to sustain and increase productivity in this difficult agricultural environment.
Harrowing to break up clods and lumps of soil, film mulching and sand cover are most frequently used by farmers to retain soil moisture. Most popular was harrowing which was used by farmers in all the sites investigated, particularly in the northern irrigation and southern mountainous areas. This could increase yields by around 40 % according to the respondents and had a relatively low capital cost. Other measures showed large differences in use by area, for example, film mulching was widely applied in Huinong to support dehydrated vegetable production and in Pengyang and Jingyuan (southern mountainous area) it increased yield by 45 %−50 %. Mulching with small stones was only applied in Haiyuan where it had become an effective measure for coping with droughts, however, it was labour intensive and costly (around 6000 RMB/ha) making it only applicable for high value crops such as watermelon.
Rainwater collection measures were used extensively across the central and southern mountainous areas in different ways. Discussions in the field found that the central arid area had a tradition of using water collected in cellars for farming and domestic purposes. Each household generally had one or two water cellars. Cellar construction was partially financed by local government in the form of cement and bricks, with a 50 % proprietary payment by local farmers. The cost of one cellar was around 1350 RMB in the central arid area and 1500 RMB in the southern mountainous area, in Pengyang farmers used the catchment areaFootnote 3 and water cellars. The government also provided similar levels of support in this area.
Furrow irrigation was the most popular water saving technology in the northern irrigation area. Survey results showed that only Huinong and Helan had adopted water saving measures. Government extension agents had found it difficult to disseminate the idea of a small plot area to improve water use efficiency because of its labour intensity and unsuitability for mechanical plowing. Irrigation technologies such as sprinklers were not suitable in the area due to the high sand content of the water diverted from the Yellow River.