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China orders $13-billion drought relief for wheat growers

The unprecedented emergency action comes in response to rainfall levels that are 80% below normal in wheat-growing provinces and amid economic unrest in rural areas.

February 08, 2009|Peter Spiegel

BEIJING — With the global economic crisis already producing unrest in rural areas, Chinese authorities have taken emergency action in wheat-growing regions that are suffering from their worst drought in 50 years.

The three northern provinces that account for more than half the country's wheat production have seen winter rainfall levels as much as 80% lower than normal, the National Meteorological Center reported.

In a sign of how seriously the government is taking the drought, the State Council, the Chinese Cabinet, discussed the crisis Thursday, state-run news media reported.

President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao personally ordered the emergency efforts to deal with the drought, according to the official New China News Agency.

State-run media news reported Saturday that the Finance Ministry had allocated nearly $13 billion for drought relief, most of which will fund direct grants to farmers.

Xu Yinlong, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, said the government's decision to declare its highest-level emergency was unprecedented, something that did not occur during the country's last major drought 30 years ago.

"This drought is occurring in front of the big backdrop of global warming and is part of the phenomenon of extreme weather events," Xu said. "The direct cause is months of lack of rainfall, but it definitely is connected with climate change."

The drought has spread beyond Hebei, Henan and Shandong, the three major wheat-producing provinces. The meteorological center said 12 provinces had been affected.

"This drought is much more serious than in past years," said Xi Yuansheng, an official in Houxi, a village in Henan province, who spoke by phone while checking wells used to water wheat crops.

"Villages . . . have been hit very seriously, and most of their wheat leaves have turned yellow," Xi said.

In recent years, floods of migrant workers have left Henan and other remote provinces to look for jobs in southern coastal cities, but the financial crisis has meant that millions have been unable to find work. The government recently put the number of unemployed migrants at 20 million.

Government television repeatedly recently showed video of provincial authorities diverting rivers and irrigation systems to provide water for the hardest-hit areas.

But Xu, the academic, said local officials initially were unprepared and had only recently moved to implement emergency measures.

According to Caijing, a respected business magazine, winter wheat production could decrease by as much as 20% because of the drought. But the publication also noted that healthy harvests in the last five years had produced adequate stocks and that shortages were unlikely.

On Saturday, some of the affected areas saw light rain and snowfall, but Xu Xiaofeng, the deputy head of the meteorological center, said that it would not significantly ease the drought.

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com

Eliot Gao in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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