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Environment

Global wheat prices could soar as China struggles with drought

The drought in northern China has raised fears of soaring global wheat prices, as its province Shandong is one of the most fertile wheat producers worldwide. Chinese officials denied its drought would impact prices.

A Chinese farmer holds a withered crop

Drought continues to plague many provinces in China

China's Northeast is considered the country's breadbasket, with Shandong province one of the most fertile wheat producers. But since there hasn't been rain or snowfall for months in eight Chinese provinces, the United Nations has warned this could force up global wheat prices.

Chinese officials were quick to rebuff the warning, saying the drought wouldn't affect international food prices.

"The recent drought may have some impact on winter wheat production, but authorities are taking active measures to minimize the impact," foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu told reporters at a press briefing. China had "abundant" reserves of grain that were sufficient to meet the nation's needs, he added.

A Chinese farmer smokes next to his empty buckets in a dried-up pond

No rain since October leaves fields dry

Withered crops and torn-up soil

China may need those reserves, however, as fields are bone dry and desperate farmers point to withered plants and torn-up soil.

"The wheat seedlings are so small. Because it's so dry, the plants aren't growing properly. We just don't have enough water. What can we do if it's not raining?" said a farmer from Dajingshan village.

China is one of the biggest wheat producers in the world and is generally self-sufficient when it comes to meeting the needs of its own population of 1.3 billion people. If the country were to buy large amounts of wheat overseas, prices on commodity markets would skyrocket. This comes at a time when food costs are already high, and a further increase would be devastating for millions of China's poorest.

Dead snails in the riverbed of a dried-up river

In some regions, it's the worst drought in 200 years

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabo and President Hu Jintao paid visits to stricken areas this month, and the government has allocated 600 million euros ($810 million) for emergency irrigation projects in an effort to minimize the loss of crucial wheat crops.

"The drought in Shandong hasn't been this bad for 60 years. In some regions it's the worst drought in 200 years," said Yang Zhende who works for the Shandong government.

Suffering from water shortage

The situation in China's severely parched Northeast is very serious, as drinking water is in short supply in some areas of Shandong province as well. China's water table levels have dropped tremendously. In a number of villages, people are relying on deliveries from fire trucks and are trying to save water as much as they can.

"There used to be enough ground water. Now there's only little left. We only use it as drinking water. We stopped doing our laundry in order to stop wasting water," said a local farmer.

Chinese men walk past a snow man

Beijing finally had some snow, but not enough, experts say

Dry winters are not uncommon in China's North, but a combination of climate change, water pollution, inefficient irrigation and rapid urban development have aggravated water scarcity in the region in recent years.

Reports say Chinese meteorologists are trying to trigger snowfall by seeding rain clouds with silver iodide. This has seen some success in Henan province. Beijing has also had some snow, though experts say it isn't enough to help the 7.7 million hectares (19 million acres) of wheat crops affected. The fields around the capital remain dangerously parched.

Author: Ruth Kirchner / sst (AFP, AP)

Editor: Kate Bowen

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