China, the world's biggest agricultural country in terms of farm population, might find it hard to bring in a good harvest this year, with a four-month drought tightening its grip on large sections of the country's northern half.
The drought has added to the woes of the nation's rural economy, which has been affected by falling commodity prices amid the global downturn. All these pressures will make it more difficult for China to stabilize grain production, increase farm incomes and expand rural markets.
The central government decided Thursday to earmark another 300 million yuan (44 million U.S. dollars) as drought relief funds, in addition to 100 million yuan previously allocated.
On the State Council meeting, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao ordered all-out efforts to combat the severe drought in the country's vast wheat-growing area to ensure a good summer harvest.
DROUGHT STRANGLES PRODUCTION
In Xigongyi Town, Gansu Province, villagers got up early Thursday morning. Although the country was still celebrating the annual Lunar New Year holiday, it was no day off for the villagers.
They were fixing irrigation equipment and waiting for water to irrigate thirsty wheat. About 15 million mu (1 million hectares) of wheat has been hit by drought in the province.
Five other major wheat-producing provinces are also dry: Henan, Anhui, Shandong, Shanxi and Shaanxi.
In Henan, it's been 104 days since it rained. About 500,000 mu of wheat have died, and 41 million mu more are struggling to survive.
Nationwide, lack of rain has affected more than 140 million mu or 43 percent of the wheat crop. About 3.7 million people and 1.85million livestock are also short of water, the Agriculture Ministry said.
NO NEAR-TERM RELIEF
Zong Zhiping, chief forecaster of the National Meteorological Center, said dry air and frequent cold fronts were combining to limit rain.
"Humidity from the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean is the major rain source for China, but abnormal atmospheric circulation last winter cut off that source of water," Zong said.
"Moreover, it's hard for rain to form in cold weather," Zong added.
In southern Shandong, only 1 mm of rain has fallen so far this winter, 90 percent less than in previous winters.
The China Meteorological Administration said Thursday that northern China would get light or moderate precipitation starting Saturday, but the severe drought in north China was not likely to ease.
The administration also warned that drought would spread to the country's eastern regions and the Yellow and Huai river regions in March.
ANTI-DROUGHT EFFORTS ROLL OUT
The government has instructed all departments to use their resources to relieve the impact of the "big dry."
The State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarter launched a Stage II emergency plan Wednesday.
On the same day, E Jing-ping, Vice Minister of Water Resources, led two work teams to Henan and Shandong to help local governments.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Agriculture sent four groups, totaling 16 work teams, to drought-stricken areas to survey the situation. It also sent 20 expert teams to hard-hit areas to offer technical guidance.
Agriculture is a top government priority. On Feb. 1, the State Council and the Central Committee of the Communist Party issued their first joint document of the year, which reiterated that the development of agriculture and rural areas in 2009 was of special significance.
In the document, the sixth of its kind to address rural problems since 2004, the government urged authorities to take resolute measures to avoid declining grain production.
MOBILIZING LOCAL RESOURCES
Jia Simin from Chengjiaji Town, Bozhou City, Anhui told a reporter that government subsidies of 1,000 yuan for each piece of irrigating equipment he bought would cover about one-third of the cost.
In Anhui Province, where losses have reached about 1.6 billion yuan, the provincial government allocated 10 million yuan from its reserves for drought relief and seedling protection, 15 million yuan in special subsidies for equipment and another 300 million yuan for farmers to buy relief materials.
In Gansu, one of the hardest-hit areas, new technology was emphasized, as professionals taught farmers to use plastic film to keep water in the soil and prevent evaporation. The province used that method on 1.4 million mu of land in the autumn. It hopes to popularize the measure and save another 5 million mu of crops during this season.
Shanxi Province, in central China, has been channeling water from the Yellow River to irrigate farmland. Before the Spring Festival, which began in late January, a pumping station was built along the river.
Also, three pumping stations in Linyi County, Yuncheng City were put into use. They provide more than 40,000 cubic meters of water to about 8,000 mu of farmland in seven nearby villages everyday.
In central Henan Province, the local government allocated a total of 555 million yuan for drought relief fund by Thursday and irrigated about 50 million mu of farmland.
The province also aimed to irrigate all of its 70 million mu of wheat.
"Although we were told that government subsidies were coming soon, I decided not to rely only on the government. I am now irrigating my land four hours a day at my own expense," said 50-year-old Wei Liuding in Baisha Village, Muzhong County in Henan.