Steps taken fall short of easing drought

The mainland launched a series of anti-drought measures in the past week largely because its wheat crop has been threatened by unusually dry weather, but experts and farmers said the situation remained grim.

Efforts include drilling wells, seeding clouds, raising subsidies and hiring agricultural experts. Though the acreage in crisis has been reduced as a result, the drought would probably worsen as the temperature rises and little rainfall is forecast in the last week of February, said a statement posted on the Ministry of Agriculture website on Thursday.

'Farmland in places where rain has fallen or irrigation has been used is losing moisture faster as the weather gets warmer,' agriculture professor Guo Tiancai , who is leading the ministry's wheat team, was quoted in the statement as saying.

Farmers from six villages in Jining and Heze, Shandong, said they had no idea of the 150-yuan (HK$177) -per-hectare government subsidy for spring fertilisation, which was announced by the State Council on February 9, or any well-drilling projects, as reported by state media.

'The subsidy will help a bit to relieve the burden of irrigation costs, but it's impossible to cover the costs,' said Feng Hailun, village chief of Leizhuang in Jining, the county that Premier Wen Jiabao inspected earlier this month.

According to the ministry's monitoring, 6.7 million hectares of winter wheat were still affected by the drought as of Wednesday, among which nearly one-fifth was considered severely hit.

Below-normal rainfall since October led to an unusual alert from the United Nations' food agency on February 8. The Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that production of wheat would be greatly reduced against the backdrop of soaring global food prices.

On February 10, a nationally televised conference on grain production decided to allocate 12.9 billion yuan to support grain production and combat the drought. The figure included 1.2 billion yuan of subsidies to help farmers afford anti-drought technology and three new subsidies for growers of wheat, greenhouse rice seedlings and corn.

The money would also be used to raise the government's purchase price for rice and to fund professional teams being sent to villages.

The National Development and Reform Committee, China's pricing authority, announced on the same day that the purchase price for japonica rice would be raised by 22 per cent this year from 2010 levels, and prices for early indica rice would increase by 9.7 per cent and middle and late indica rice by 10.3 per cent.

Li Guoxiang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Rural Development Institute, said measures ordered by the central government could not reach every village in the drought-stricken area.

'These measures have helped ease the drought, but just to a limited extent. For example, growing crops has become unprofitable for farmers in recent years as costs have risen. Increasing subsidies may help regenerate their enthusiasm, but the rise was still too small to attract many people as long as they have jobs in local towns or cities.'

Artificial rain and a snowfall two weeks ago also proved to be hardly helpful. 'The rain would have to be at least a finger's length deep to alleviate the drought,' said Shi Zhongyi, a farmer in Heze's Linzhuang village.

Meteorological authorities announced last Monday that they had received 7.5 million yuan from the Ministry of Finance to strengthen their anti-drought efforts. The fund would be used to support efforts by meteorological departments in Shanxi, Hebei, Anhui , Henan and Shandong provinces, to seed clouds, said a statement posted on the National Meteorological Administration website.

The Ministry of Land and Resources has decided to drill 1,350 new wells in Shandong, Henan, Hubei , Anhui, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Gansu and Jiangsu .

In Huaiyang county, Henan, where irrigation systems are relatively better developed, farmers still lacked water. 'Now we can get water only from wells, but there aren't enough of them,' said Chang Guilan, a farmer in Changlou village.

'A lot of my wheat has dried and withered. It would be great if the government helped us drill more wells.'

Other measures taken so far include directing water from reservoirs in the upper reaches of the Yellow River and issuing loans to farmers.

Relief measures

1,350 wells will be drilled in eight wheat growing provinces, Shandong, Henan, Hubei, Anhui,Shanxi, Shaanxi, Gansu and Jiangsu

1.45b yuan of loans given to seven worst hit cities in Shandong

12.9b yuan government fund set up to ensure grain output and combat drought

1.2b yuan in subsidies for anti-drought measures

10%-22% increases in price of rice

2,000 professional teams to tackle problems of insects in the worst hit counties