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China puts $13 billion toward drought relief efforts

The Baltimore Sun

BEIJING -With the global economic crisis 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 eastern provinces that account for more than half of the country's wheat production have seen winter rainfall levels as much as 80 percent lower than normal, the National Meteorological Center reported.

In a sign of how seriously the government is taking the drought, state-run news media reported that the State Council, the highest level of executive authority, discussed the crisis Thursday.

The official New China News Agency reported that President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao had personally ordered the emergency efforts to deal with the drought.

The state-run media reported yesterday that the Finance Ministry had allocated nearly 87 billion yuan, or close to $13 billion, for drought relief, most of which would fund direct aid grants to farmers. The rest will go to help bail out grain producers.

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 provinces; the meteorological center said 12 provinces have been affected.

"This drought is much more serious than in past years," said Xi Yuansheng, a local official in Houxi, a village in Henan province, who spoke by phone while checking wells used to water wheat crops. "Villages in [nearby] Sangqiu have been hit very seriously, and most of their wheat leaves have turned yellow."

In recent years, droves of migrant workers have left Henan and other remote provinces to look for jobs in southern coastal cities. The Chinese government recently put the number of unemployed migrants at 20 million.

In recent days, government television showed repeated video footage of provincial authorities diverting rivers and irrigation systems to provide water.

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