The snows in Henan have spread to Beijing, with the capital getting its latest first snowfall of the season in 60 years. Snow and sleet have also been falling in Gansu, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan and Anhui. But it is too little too late to do much to alleviate the drought across the North China Plain that has persisted since October and is reckoned to be the most serious in six decades. Worse the official forecast is for the abnormally dry weather to continue for the foreseeable future. If it lasts into spring, as the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization has warned, the winter wheat crop due to be harvested in June will be at risk.
The North China Plain grows more than two-thirds of China’s wheat. Authorities are stepping up drought relief efforts, saying they are throwing $1 billion in all at the emergency and seeking ways to increase the output of rice, which is grown mainly in the south of the country, to offset the potential decline in northern wheat production. The State Council has approved higher support prices for rice farmers, following a similar increase earlier in the week for wheat farmers. Grain prices will continue to rise making the fight against inflation even tougher. A serious failure of China’s wheat crop would have marked ramifications for world commodity markets. (Update: World Bank says it expects “volatile, higher than average grain prices until at least 2015”.)
To give a sense of the scale of the impact of the drought on the wheatlands of the North China Plain, acreage equivalent to half the size of South Korea has been damaged by the lack of rain fall. Meanwhile nearly 3 million people there face shortages of drinking water.