Pumping water from the deep aquifer below the increasingly arid North China Plain has a hidden cost beyond the depletion of irreplaceable water resources, a new joint UK-China study reveals. Farmers are now pumping so much irrigation water from such deep levels, up to 70 meters-80 meters below ground in some provinces, that the energy required to drill the wells and run the diesel pumps accounts for more than half a percent of China’s total greenhouse-gas emissions.
Overall, farming accounts for 17–20% of China’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions, the study’s authors say. Pumping water for irrigation is one of farmers’ most energy intensive activities. The study, conducted by scientists from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the U.K.’s University of East Anglia, claims to be the first detailed estimate of greenhouse-gas emissions from groundwater pumping for irrigation. The authors say its shows that “significant potential exists to promote the co-benefits of water and energy saving in order to meet national planning targets”.
The scale of the challenge of realizing those benefits is that the current five-year plan aims to increase irrigation water use efficiency by 3% by 2015, emphasizing the importance of improving groundwater resource management to control over-exploitation. However, this is to be achieved whilst increasing total grain production by 13% to 450 million tonnes and decreasing national energy consumption per unit of GDP by 16%.
The latest look-ahead for China by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) sees a big jump in cereal imports. The FAO’s recently published Global Information and Early Warning System, GIEWS, country brief says that total cereal (barley, maize, wheat and rice) imports for the 2011/12 grain marketing year, which runs from July to June, will reach at least 9.2 million tonnes, a new record, and a 92% increase on the 2010/2011 figure. This is despite ‘significant’ increases in cereal production over the past few years, including another record harvest this year which saw prolonged drought conditions in several regions in the country.
The increase reflects government efforts to provide irrigation to drought-affected farmers, and higher procurement prices intended to encourage the production needed to meet rising self-sufficiency targets. Supply still struggles to keep up with demand so government will need to sustain its policy measures to stabilize domestic cereal prices, whose sharp rises over the past year have been significant contributors to consumer price inflation.
Footnote: During last winter and spring, China spent 216 billion yuan ($34 billion) on infrastructure to improve water supplies to farmland, an official with the Ministry of Water resources told the annual central conference on rural work in Beijing this week. That was a 44% increase on the same period a year earlier. Spending is expected to rise a further 10% to 258 billion yuan during this winter and the coming spring as the push to sustain agricultural production is maintained.
More than 2,300 artillery shells and 400 rockets were fired Saturday as officials tried to make rain over the drought-stricken North China plain. The China Meteorological Administration said these operations brought an average 0.5 millimeters of rainfall to 17 counties and cities in Henan province. Other areas of the plain saw one to five millimeters of rain overnight.
Xinhua reports that the rush to irrigate the summer crop now has 52.7 percent of the wheat farmland in the drought-hit provinces watered, according to the agriculture ministry. A Ministry of Water Resources says water from the Yangtze River will be diverted north to Jiangsu province while sluices on the Inner Mongolian section of the Yellow River, will be opened to increase water supply for Henan and Shandong provinces. Downstream sluices are already open.
We are also starting to get reports of drought affecting rice-growing Hubei, Hunan, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.
Here is a snapshot of the affected wheat-growing area of the North China Plain from ReliefWeb:
Drought-stricken provinces of North China Plain