In Yang's village of Longba, rainwater used to be sufficient to keep his mountaintop tobacco fields green. But since 2009, rain has gone missing, and Yang had to start carrying water up from a river several miles away.
Last year, the amount of water needed for irrigation was so big that everyone in Yang's family went to help, including his teenage children and parents in their late 70s. Still, about a fifth of the tobacco seedlings he planted withered for lack of water. Replanting added more to the workload and the difficulties to make ends meet.
"That was the hardest time in my life," the 40-year-old tobacco grower recalled. "I don't know how to make a living if the drought continues into this year."
Yang is not alone. On the provincial level, the drought has already baked millions of acres of farmland over the past three years, leaving many farmers with nothing to harvest.
The financial disaster has spread to businesses that trade and process agricultural goods. For instance, many rubber factories in Yunnan reportedly shut down due to insufficient raw materials. This, combined with declining revenue in other industries, has caused a direct economic loss of about $4.2 billion in Yunnan since the drought started in 2009, local media have reported.
Little water left to 'help the nature'
There is also a national impact. Yunnan is a major Chinese herb-growing area, and its falling output drove up herb prices nationwide. The drought has also hampered China's ability to transmit hydroelectricity from water-rich western regions to feed the country's power-hungry manufacturing sector, most of which is in the east.
Meanwhile, the province's forests are on high alert because of the threat of wildfires. The drought has also dried up many lakes and wetlands, causing die-offs of aquatic species and forcing survivors to live in more polluted waters.
In Fuxian Lake, a sharp water level drop has already shrunk the habitats of a type of fish that only exists there, said Duan Changqun, an ecologist at Yunnan University. He added that changes to one species will have a significant impact on the whole ecosystem.
For now, no one knows what that impact will be. A complete analysis on the effects of Yunnan's drought is still missing, and some damage may not emerge for years.
"Yunnan is known as Asia's water tower because many important domestic and international rivers start from here," Duan explained. "Droughts in Yunnan mean less water flows in the downstream, sending a blow to ecosystem of other parts of China as well as South Asian countries."
Some steps have been taken in recent years to protect Yunnan's drought-stricken environment, such as strengthening fire prevention measures in forests. But Duan says those efforts are negligible compared with what is needed.
"The priority is given to ensuring drinking water, and then supporting agricultural and industrial water use," he said. "Little water is left to help the nature."
'Why bother to plant?'
Yet even for residents, who enjoy the most support, getting water is becoming harder. Due to years-long intensive use and a lack of refilling, water levels in many reserves run low and cities like the provincial capital, Kunming, had to cut water supplies for households to four hours a day.
Empty water reserves also made villagers hesitate to continue farming. In Longba village, the number of tobacco growers is decreasing. "Villagers believe they will not be able to get enough water for their fields, so why bother to plant?" explained Duan Shaokun, a local official.
As one grower quits, then another and another, remaining growers begin to feel the pain of a smaller community -- tobacco companies are not willing to subsidize water-saving technologies and invest in more efficient irrigation systems because of the limited scale there, Duan Shaokun says. And villagers themselves can't afford the hefty upfront investment.