Friday, February 27, 2009

"China wheat harvest withers in drought"

From the International Herald Tribune:

Northern China is dry in the best of times. But this long rainless stretch has underscored the urgency of water problems in a region that grows three-fifths of China's crops and houses more than two-fifths of its people.

Water supplies have been drying up for decades, the result of pervasive overuse and waste. Underground aquifers have been so depleted that, in some farming regions, wells probe more than 800 meters deep before striking water.

The latest drought is crippling not only the country's best wheat farmland but also the wells that provide clean water to industry and to millions of people.

Before light showers and snow arrived this week, much of the region had not seen rain since October.

Although the showers reduced the hardest-hit drought area by half, more than 46,600 square kilometers, or 18,000 square miles, of farmland remained critically endangered, the Chinese Agriculture Ministry said Friday. About 4.7 million people and 2.5 million livestock were said last week to lack adequate drinking water.

For the Chinese government, already grappling with the fallout from a global economic crisis, this drought is inauspicious. Winter wheat is the nation's second-largest crop, behind rice, and a water shortage could not only drive up world wheat prices, but also raise irrigation costs and cut income for farmers.

The drought is peaking as millions of migrant workers rendered jobless by factory closings and construction shutdowns are returning to rural areas where farming is the main source of income. Government officials are clearly concerned by the prospect of rising unrest among jobless migrants, and failed crops and water shortages only heighten those worries...

The authorities have opened dam sluices, draining reservoirs like Luhan to irrigate dry fields; dispatched water trucks to thousands of villages with dry wells; and bored hundreds of new wells. Newspapers have breathlessly reported the launching of thousands of rocket shells filled with cigarette-size capsules of silver iodide, purportedly to seduce balky clouds into producing rain.

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