Feb 27, 2009

China's 'Wheat Belt' Sees Worst Drought in Half Century

Drought affecting crops; access to clean water dwindling


Although northern China is consistently dry, a long drought has exacerbated urgent water problems in the country’s “wheat belt,” the New York Times reported. The current drought, considered the worst in the region in at least half a century, has affected not only the land, but also the wells that provide clean water to industry and to millions of people.

As a result of overuse and waste, water supplies have been dwindling in Northern China for decades. Wells stretch a half-mile down before striking water in some areas because aquifers are so depleted.

In recent days, light showers have arrived, the first rain most of the region has seen since October 2008. According to the Chinese Agriculture Ministry, more than 18,000 sq miles of farmland are still critically endangered, and about 4.7 million people and 2.5 million head of livestock still lack adequate drinking water, the paper reported.

Winter wheat is the nation’s second largest crop, behind rice, and a water shortage could raise irrigation costs and cut income for farmers, even as it increased wheat prices for farmers elsewhere in the world.

Water shortages and the effects of the drought on crops heighten officials’ concern about rising unrest among jobless migrants, the paper reported.

The government has increased drought relief spending by about $44 million and announced it would speed up the provision of annual grain and farm subsidies worth another $13 billion.

Other measures authorities have taken include opening dam sluices, draining reservoirs to irrigate dry fields; dispatching water trucks to thousands of villages with dry wells; and boring hundreds of new wells.

Newspapers have reported that thousands of rocket shells filled with cigarette-size capsules of silver iodide were launched into the sky, in hopes of prompting clouds to produce rain.