09/01/2009, 00.00
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China grain harvest is at risk from worst drought in recent years

According to official figures of 12.73 million hectares of crops is parched. But unofficial sources describe a far worse situation worse. Major grain producing regions are hardest hit. The government fears social protests by poor farmers who risk losing everything.

Beijing (AsiaNews / Agencies) - China is experiencing major difficulties caused by severe drought in 10 provinces and regions, from north to south. According to the State Office for the water control and combating drought, there is no water for crops in up to 12.73 million hectares, 35% more than in 2008. Drinking water is also scare for 6.93 million people and 5.62 million heads of livestock.

On August 28 Premier Wen Jiabao visited in Inner Mongolia over two days, to call local officials attention to the "extreme importance" of the fight against drought.

Wen warned that "the drought in northern China continues to worsen, and there are signs of a shortage of water even in the south”, he also noted that water supply is the priority, especially in agricultural areas.

The Agriculture Minister said that the situation in major cereal producing regions (Hunan, Liaoning, Heilongjiang, Shanxi and Jilin, which together provide 30% of the autumn harvest) is so serious that the autumn harvest cereals, , which supplies 70% of annual production,  "is in danger". In these 5 regions official sources say that the drought has affected at least 833 hectares of crops and 2.56 million have been seriously damaged. But the estimates of local sources are worse and in Jilin they say the water shortage has affected 60% of all farms. The government offices maintain that in the north more than 8.67 million hectares of crops are suffering from drought, especially soybeans crops. The situation is such that the government prefers not to make estimates on crop harvests, as it does every year, for fear of fuelling speculation and social protests.

Although Wen has assured that the state has enough grain reserves to meet any emergency, the fear is that poor harvests will trigger social unrest, particularly by farmers who risk losing their only source of livelihood and will be forced to survive on state handouts. Also because the government usually imposes high grain prices, to avoid large increases, but in doing so undermines the earning power of farmers, especially when faced great expense of finding water. Wen suggested local governments to help farmers with subsidies, but has not indicated exactly how to do so.

For decades, drought has plagued the country. The authorities have often made grandiose plans to bring water where it is scarce, but these have not yet been realized, given the immense environmental and hydrogeological problems involved. The situation has worsened in recent years because of industrial development and urban planning, which has absorbed or polluted important water sources as well as savage deforestation in some areas that has fostered desertification.

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