Prolonged drought threatens China's food producing regions

Tue, Feb 8, 2011, 00:00

AN EXTREME shortage of rain or snow this winter has blighted China’s chief food-producing areas.

Agricultural production across four million hectares has fallen dangerously in what is the worst drought in six decades.Across the provinces which help feed cities of northern China, precipitation is at precariously low levels.

Shandong province has had only 12mm (½in) of rain since last September, 15 per cent of the normal level. Despite more than 4,000 pumping stations continuing to supply water, the situation remains severe.

The drought, which began in October, has hit the southwest parts of Shandong hardest, putting further pressure on politically sensitive food prices that have been surging for months.

“It’s hard to know when it will rain. We must prepare for the worst and do our best to combat the drought to ensure a good harvest,” premier Wen Jiabao said during a new year visit to a reservoir in Qufu, one of the worst affected areas.

Local media carried pictures of the man known as “Grandad Wen” holding a dead plant against a barren backdrop.

“The drought affects agricultural output, which is related to the nation’s food security and the income of rural people. I worry about it,” Mr Wen told a local farmer during his visit.

Rising food prices pushed inflation to 4.6 per cent in December after hitting a 28-month high of 5.1 per cent the month before. That put the rate for the full year at 3.3 per cent, while the economy grew by 10.3 per cent.

Drought in northern China is a long-term problem. The authorities have struggled for years to combat a water shortage brought on by global warming and surging consumption, especially among the tens of millions of people who live in Beijing and booming adjacent areas.

Hundreds of millions of Chinese rely on farming to make a living. Consequently, good harvests are crucial to keeping meat, grains and vegetables affordable for the vast majority of lower-class Chinese who spend one-third or more of their income on food.

Zheng Fengtian, a professor in agriculture and village development in Renmin University, outlined a grim picture of a parched land in provinces like Hebei, Shanxi, Shandong, Henan, Jiangsu and Anhui on his blog.

More than half of the four million hectares used for growing wheat have been hit by drought, and the government is introducing emergency funding to alleviate the situation. The capital is also in trouble. It hasn’t rained in Beijing for more than three months, the longest period without rain in 40 years. Moreover, scores of millions of people northern China are facing severe drinking water shortages.

“Beijing had no snow before the spring festival, which is also the first time in 60 years,” Prof Zheng wrote, while 109 counties and cities in Hebei have not had a drop of water for three months, leaving millions of hectares of wheat production endangered by drought.

In response to the problem of drought, China intends to invest billions of dollars in an attempt to improve water provision.