China’s Big Dry

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Since China announced last week that it is facing the most severe drought in half a century, there are signs the situation is becoming more desperate. The government has drastically upped its emergency funding for stricken farmers to nearly $13 billion and has begun employing cloud seeding to induce rain over parched croplands. Premier Wen Jiabao, who last year was ever the man on the spot during emergencies such as the winter storms and the Sichuan earthquake, is back at it again, inspecting fields and trying his hand at irrigation.

The government plans to divert water from the Yangtze and Yellow rivers to ease the threat to nearly half China’s winter wheat crop. At this point such extreme measures are unavoidable, but China can’t escape the likelihood that inefficient and poorly managed irrigation has contributed to the problem. This weekend the South China Morning Post reported that some mainland experts are pointing the finger at human causes:

Qiu Weiduo, a conservation expert at a research institute under the Ministry of Water Resources, said human factors were more to blame than weather for the drought, which is threatening the country’s grain harvest and has affected more than  4 million people.

“Although officials say China’s water use efficiency in irrigation is about 45 per cent, it is apparently an underestimation of widespread waste in rural areas,” said Mr Qiu, who also advises the Ministry of Science and Technology.

Irrigation efficiency – defined as the ratio of the water consumed by crops on an irrigated area compared with the amount diverted from the source – is less than 30 per cent on the mainland, said Mr Qiu, who cited poor infrastructure, such as reservoirs and canals, and leaking pipes.