Severe drought threatens Chinese wheat crop

Low rainfall in the north has put nearly half of the country’s harvest at risk

A severe drought in northern China – considered the country’s breadbasket – has hit almost 43% of the country’s wheat crop this winter, senior officials have warned.

Low rainfall since October has affected more than 9.3m hectares (229.71 acres) of land in northern China across six major grain-producing provinces, according to the Office of State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters. Last week it warned that 3.7 million people and 1.85 million livestock had lost access to drinking water.

Vice-premier Hui Liangyu has urged local officials to make tackling the water shortage a priority, state media reported today. Beijing has set aside 100m yuan (£10m) of funding to help farmers combat the problem and have sent specialist teams to the worst affected areas. Provincial governments are planning to seed clouds to ensure it rains.

Henan Daily reported that the drought is the province’s most severe since 1951, with no rain for 105 days. It warned that up to 63% of the region’s wheat crop is threatened.

In Anhui the provincial government said the drought had already caused losses of 1.6bn yuan. It has set aside hundreds of millions of yuan to assist farmers.

Sun Zhengcai, the agriculture minister, blamed low rainfall since October for the problems. The meteorological administration says no rain is forecast over the next week.

But environmental campaigners warned the lack of rainfall had merely exacerbated a long term problem in a naturally dry region where consumption has soared, thanks to intensive agriculture, industry and a rising and increasingly urbanised population.

Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs and author of China’s Water Crisis, said that to have more than 100 rainless days was a record in recent decades.

But he added: “Water use in the region is not sustainable. We have seen rivers running dry because too much water has been diverted for farming and increasingly for urban and industrial use. We have seen the water table dropping steadily over the last three decades. Obviously this kind of drought adds insult to injury.”

While the authorities had helped industry and cities to increase the efficiency of water usage, it was not enough to solve the problem.

Ma said the northern half of China had over 40% of the country’s population, more than 50% of the arable land and much industry due to its coal reserves – yet less than 20% of the nation’s water.

China said last month that it would spend 21.3bn yuan on the next phase of its ambitious water diversion project to help the arid north. The multibillion pound scheme, which will take up to half a century to complete, will connect the Yangtze, Huaihe, Yellow and Haihe rivers. It will require the creation of east, middle and western channels and will eventually divert 44.8bn cubic metres of water annually. The first phase of the eastern programme will begin to deliver water by 2013.

Ma said the scheme was first conceived in the fifties, but that many people believed its time had come because the situation in the north was now so dire. “We have to keep in mind that this will not fill up the whole gap,” he said. “From now on the focus should be seriously shifted to conserving water.”

Campaigners have warned that the scheme could have serious social and environmental repercussions, changing the ecosystem and requiring mass resettlement.

Wednesday 4 February 2009 15.48 GMT
Tania Branigan

Source: The Guardian

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