The worst drought to hit China in 60 years has triggered debate about how the country can tackle a fast-spreading water crisis, as well as meet rising food security challenges.

Eight of China's major wheat-growing provinces, which account for 80 per cent of the country's total wheat output, have been hit by a four-month drought.

Last week, the government announced a slew of emergency measures to boost grain production. Premier Wen Jiabao said on Friday the government would spend $1.96 billion on emergency measures and raise minimum rice purchase price to mitigate the impact of the drought, which has left 2.81 million people and 2.57 million heads of livestock without adequate drinking water.

Mr. Wen also stressed the importance of long-term measures to address the water problem: China needed to strengthen farmland irrigation, promote water conservancy construction and boost irrigation systems, he said.

Analysts say poor water management practices have magnified the impact of the drought. They have called on the government to boost water conservation efforts in the next Five-Year Plan (2011-15), which will be announced next month.

China has substantially improved its irrigation systems over the past two decades, investing $2 billion annually. Forty-eight per cent of China's arable land is now irrigated. India, in contrast, has more arable land than China but less irrigated area, estimated at 30 per cent.

China's improvements in irrigation systems, along with greater fertiliser use, have been attributed as being behind its significant increases in grain production, which now more than doubles India's.

But rising strains on water resources, coupled with high wastage and pollution, have raised concerns here over the country's long-term water and food security. China's water productivity, estimated by the World Bank at $3.6 per cubic metre, is higher than India's but lower than the $4.8 per cu.m. average for middle-income countries, and lagging far behind the $35 per cu.m. average in high-income nations. The government said last month it would double average annual spending on water conservation in the next decade, investing four trillion yuan ($608 billion) on conservation projects. This would include adding 2.7 million hectares of irrigated land by 2015.

The next plan may also, for the first time, introduce higher resource taxes and an energy tax. “The next Five-Year Plan is crucial in terms of whether China can succeed in transforming its economy from the current [energy and consumption] intensive model to a low-carbon model,” Yang Ailun of Greenpeace China told The Hindu. “Energy security is crucial for water security too, as coal uses a lot more water and pollutes far more than other energy sources.”

Wastage

While environmental groups have called for a focus on reducing wastage and improving irrigation efficiency, they fear much of the investment will instead be directed towards big dam projects, which are expected to mark a return in the next Plan.

Less than one-third of the dams proposed in the last Five-Year Plan were allowed to begin construction, following a backlash against big dams amid rising environmental activism.

However, the recent approval for a controversial project on the Jinsha river and the construction of the Zangmu dam on the Brahmaputra, or Yarlung Tsangpo, have been “widely interpreted as a clear signal” that more projects would be approved, the official Global Times reported last week.

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