As the drought continues, the focus will be on whether China, which is largely self—sufficient in wheat, will reach out for imports and how that would affect global prices for the staple, which has already risen about 35 percent since mid—November.

Chinese officials said on Wednesday they were preparing for “a severe, long—lasting drought” in the key wheat—producing eastern province of Shandong, with no rain in sight until mid—month and possibly beyond in the parched region.

On Tuesday, the U.N. food agency warned that the monthslong drought was putting pressure on wheat prices in China, the world’s largest wheat grower. Average flour prices rose more than 8 percent in January from the previous two months.

As the drought continues, the focus will be on whether China, which is largely self—sufficient in wheat, will reach out for imports and how that would affect global prices for the staple, which has already risen about 35 percent since mid—November.

China’s national weather bureau forecasts little if any rain for the Shandong region through February 17.

Shandong faces its worst drought in 200 years

State television broadcast images on Wednesday of withered crops in cracked earth. State media have said Shandong faces its worst drought in 200 years and that the other affected provinces across the country’s north and east are facing their worst in 60 years.

The director of emergency relief at Shandong’s weather bureau said the agency had predicted the future trend of the drought, but he refused to give details. Like many Chinese officials, he would not give his name.

“What we are doing now is making full preparations to deal with a severe, long—lasting drought,” he said.

However, irrigation efforts are on hold because of a cold snap, and “we are advising farmers not to water their crops, because the temperature is too low,” he said. The cold snap is expected to end on Sunday.

Only about half an inch (12 millimeters) of rain has fallen on Shandong since September, the state—run Xinhua News Agency has reported.

Shandong, Jiangsu, Henan, Hebei and Shanxi provinces hit

China has said the drought is mainly affecting the provinces of Shandong, Jiangsu, Henan, Hebei and Shanxi, which grow more than two—thirds of the country’s wheat.

The government has already announced it was sending relief teams to eight affected provinces, and President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have made high—profile trips to drought—ridden areas.

Tuesday’s alert by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said low amounts of precipitation have meant there hasn’t been enough snowfall to protect dormant plants from frost, and have affected soil moisture needed for the growing season.

China’s winter wheat is harvested in June, and the FAO said the situation could become critical if a spring drought follows the winter drought or if temperatures plunge this month.

2.6 million people, 2.8 million livestock affected

FAO said the drought had affected 2.6 million people and 2.8 million livestock “due to shortages of drinking water.”

The United Nations has sounded the alarm about rising commodity prices, particularly for wheat, warning that social unrest was likely.

In Beijing, consumers already grumpy about the country’s rising inflation were returning from the weeklong Lunar New Year holiday to find nothing had improved.

“I normally don’t spend so much money for food during the holiday,” shopper Zhou Yuanji said. “I really feel the pressure this year. Everything is getting so expensive.”

Imports may not work

Looking to imports to help fight drought—fed inflation may not work, Carl Weinberg, chief economist for New York—based High Frequency Economics, wrote in a report.

Grain crops in other major producer nations such as Australia have been reduced by bad weather and natural disasters.

“Importing grains at lower prices than domestic prices may not be possible, if imports are available at all,” Mr. Weinberg said in the report, released on Wednesday.

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