The drought on the North China Plain, the country’s main wheat growing region, that has lasted since October already alarms Chinese authorities, who say Shandong, the province at the epicenter and which has had only 12 mms of rain since October, is facing its worst drought in 200 years. Now the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has issued a special alert — which means an early warning alert — about the situation.
The agency says the June harvest of the winter wheat crop is at risk from the substantially below normal rainfall on the parched plain and from the diminished snow covering that has reduced the protection snow usually affords against plant-killing frost.
Although the current winter drought has, so far, not affected winter wheat productivity, the situation could become critical if a spring drought follows the winter one and/or the temperatures in February fall below normal.
In the maps below, the redder the area the more below average has been the cumulative rain and snow fall between October last year and January this. The worst affected area, circled in blue, falls directly over the plain.
The main provinces affected are Shandong, Jiangsu, Henan, Hebei and Shanxi. In 2009, they produced 75.6 million tonnes of China’s 112.5 million tonnes of wheat, or 67%, a typical share. Offical estimates are that 5.2 million hectares of the 14 million hectares under winter wheat in these provinces may have been affected by the current drought. It has also left more than 2.5 million people and 2.8 million livestock facing shortages of drinking water.
China, we should note, is not facing a risk of imminent food shortages, even if the June wheat crop should fail; it has reserves and can import. However, wheat prices are already rising. The national average price of wheat flour is a sixth higher than a year ago. That and the worldwide rise in agricultural commodities prices are feeding through to persistent domestic consumer price inflation and the latest interest-rate rises, despite price controls introduced last year. Longer-term, authorities are concerned that China’s grain production, after seven successive years of increases, is hitting a plateau because of structural shortages of land, hands and water.
The North China Plain, 410,000 square kilometers of the most water-starved area in China, has become a poster child for the problem. A long record of deforestation and desertification has led to the erosion of former farmland. Urbanization, industrialization and the rapid growth of cities such as Beijing and Tianjin at the north-eastern end of the plain have gobbled up more farmland and caused the water table to sink lower and lower year after year. Shallow village wells are drying up. New wells are having to be sunk into the unreplenishable deep aquifer under the plain. Recurrent droughts only amplify the problems.
It is going to take more than normal rainfall to turn the increasingly arid North China Plain green again. The government is allocating vast sums not just to drought relief efforts but also to water conservation infrastructure and grand if controversial plans to draw irrigation water off three western and southern rivers through a series of canals and pipes — a project that will cost more than the Three Gorges dam.