The worst drought to hit China in 60 years has triggered debate here about how the country can tackle a fast-spreading water crisis, even as the government this week announced a slew of emergency measures to boost grain production and salvage this year's harvest.

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.

Analysts say poor water management practices have magnified its impact, and have called on the government to use the next Five-Year Plan (2011-15) to boost conservation efforts.

Premier Wen Jiabao said on Friday the government would spend $1.96 billion on emergency measures to combat the spread of the drought, which has affected 35 per cent of wheat crops, stretching across one-fifth of the farmland of the eight provinces. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the drought has left 2.81 million people and 2.57 million heads of livestock without adequate drinking water.

This week, the government also resorted to cloud seeding, conducting 500 seeding operations across northern China to bring about snowfall.

The government said 1,200 rockets and more than 1,800 shells had been fired on Wednesday and Thursday, which brought 3 mm of snow and some relief.

Mr. Wen said the government would also raise minimum rice purchase prices to boost incomes, provide technological services for farmers and use reserves to ensure the stability of grain prices. China, which is self-sufficient in wheat, is also likely to substantially increase its imports, prompting fears from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation that the drought could impact global food prices.

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.

Ma Xiaohe, an official at the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), told the State-run Xinhua news agency that the drought had challenged China's weak water management systems, and called for the construction of “a comprehensive irrigation system.”

Analysts say the drought has underscored the importance of boosting conservation efforts in the next Five-Year Plan (2011-15), expected to be announced in March, which will lay the blueprint for China's economic policies for the next decade.

While environmental groups have advocated addressing water conservation by improving irrigation systems and reducing wastage, they have also expressed fears that the next plan could signal a go-ahead for big dam projects as a measure to address the water crisis.

“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 in an interview. “Energy security is crucial for water security too, as coal uses a lot more water and pollutes far more than other energy sources.”

The government has signalled that conservation is likely to figure prominently in the next plan, already dubbed the greenest ever. On January 29, it declared water conservation a priority in its first policy document for the year, saying it would invest 4 trillion yuan ($61billion) on water conservation.

But environmental groups fear the next plan could also mark the return of big dam projects. Less than one-third of proposed dams in the last five-year plan were allowed to begin construction, following a growing backlash against big dams amid rising environmental activism.

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 on Thursday.

Ms. Yang said beyond listing targets, the next plan also needed to include “detailed measures” on how to achieve them. The “gap” between policies and local-level implementation also needed to be addressed, she said. The next plan is likely to introduce an energy tax and higher resource taxes, a move welcomed by environmental groups.

“These are all good signals,” she said. “With market-based, economic measures, these policies can be applied to the whole country. We cannot rely on the good conscience of the government, or of officials.”

Keywords: China drought