Tuesday 15 June 1999

-- Li-Yuxing has been looking at the skies in despair. He is one of the many farmers of northeast China's Shandong and Henan provinces that produce about half of China's winter wheat. At the time when the Chinese government is gearing up to face annual summer floods, the problem actually is not too much but too little rain.

According to official reports more than 12 million hectares of winter wheat have been damaged in five provinces by the unusual warm weather that has allowed pests and plant diseases to flourish. Although the Chinese government claims that there is no danger of a famine or a drought since it has surplus from the last few year's bumper crops, these reassurances are not enough for farmers who depend on wheat for their yearly income. People in the rural areas have become so disenchanted by the long dry spell that a large number of migrants from Shandong have reached Beijing, the national capital, to look for work.

However, back home in the villages, farmers who have stayed behind, irrigate fields with well water -- some even carrying one bucket at a time with the hope that rains will finally arrive and save the crops.

The crisis struck just as the communist government was reasserting its monopoly on buying and selling all of China's rice, wheat, corn and soyabeans from farmers. Complicating the matter is the growing demand for water by industry and cities. The Yellow River, a major irrigation source for Henan and Shandong, now runs dry in its lower reaches every year because of heavy use upstream

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