China’s drought raises food security worries

Published: 16 February 2011 9:30 CET

Francis Markus, IFRC, Beijing  
China is getting back to work after the festivities ushering in the lunar New Year of the Rabbit.

But amid the family reunions, the fireworks and the packed trains and buses, the holiday spirit has been clouded for millions of farmers by anxiety over the impact of what state media say is the worst drought in at least six decades.

And the worries about the possible effects are not confined to China alone. In an increasingly globalised economy, the Red Cross Red Crescent is warning that food security work needs to be based on the awareness that China’s weather can easily also become the Middle East’s or Africa’s problem.

“China’s drought has become a potential global food security issue, because should the country have to import significant amounts of wheat, that would cause a major spike in prices on the global market,” says IFRC East Asia Regional Representative Martin Faller.

The United Nations has warned that China’s water shortage, affecting eight northern provinces, could badly impact the country’s wheat harvest in the next few months, with implications not just for China but for food security worldwide.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said that roughly a third of China’s total area of wheat fields had been affected by the drought. It said that 2.57 million people and 2.79 million head of livestock faced shortages of drinking water.

For the IFRC, food security has long been a topmost issue in many countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. In China, on the other hand, the last three decades have seen the average person’s diet increase steadily in variety and nutrition.

The increasing demand for grain, not just from China but from India and other emerging economies is, however, one of the issues bringing the global nature of food security into sharper focus.

The global phenomenon of climate change may also be a factor in the current drought. As part of its community based disaster preparedness programmes, the Red Cross Society of China, supported by the IFRC, is working to explore the effects of climate change.

An increasing number of Red Cross projects focusing on some of the country’s most vulnerable communities are also providing support to dig wells, ensuring more reliable water supplies and to improve irrigation measures.

“But it’s clear that such efforts need to be both further expanded and replicated by other stakeholders in order for instance to help farmers to adapt to climate change on a meaningful scale,” says Martin Faller, IFRC East Asia Regional Representative.

Dusting of snow little help

As the New Year holidays ended, Beijing and some surrounding areas were dusted by the first snow of the winter, which the authorities said was partly as a result of cloud-seeding. But it was far from enough to make an impact against such a prolonged lack of precipitation.

The Chinese government has announced urgent measures to address the drought, by ordering the drilling of more than 1,300 new wells and improved irrigation measures – just part of a massive investment it plans over the next few years.

It has also said it will raise the prices paid to farmers for their rice crops in order to encourage them to cultivate more rice. Although among the two staple foods of China, rice and noodles - – made largely of wheat – southerners broadly prefer rice and noodles are more popular in northern China, authorities hope that might at least help ease some of the pressure