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Villages play waiting game in war against drought
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Hundreds of meters away stood a fellow villager, Mao Qi, who was only too eager to irrigate his field after he borrowed water pumps from the county on Friday. "I eat and sleep on the fields, otherwise someone might steal the pumps," the 69-year-old said. "I meant to irrigate sooner but the pumps weren't available."

Villagers in Mengjin county, Henan province, channel water into their wheat field last week. [Gao Shanyue/China Daily]

Villagers in Mengjin county, Henan province, channel water into their wheat field last week. [Gao Shanyue/China Daily] 

Premier Wen Jiabao confirmed on Saturday that Henan had been allocated more than 60 million yuan (US$ 8.8 million) of the total 400 million yuan in drought relief funds. But Tianzhuang village Party chief Li Derong claimed he had not seen a penny.

"Not only that, the county has said only those who buy pumps from their agricultural equipment company qualify for a 320-yuan discount," he said. "But their pumps are bad quality and come in only one size. It's so unfair."

Kong Weiping, 34, a migrant worker whose family in eastern Henan's Shangqiu city has refused to irrigate their wheat fields, said China must find effective ways to convince farmers to grow crops again. "The cost of growing crops is high enough, add that to the cost of irrigation and the fact farmers only have so much field to work with," Kong said.

An average Chinese farmer has about 1.38 mu of arable land, while Henan farmers have only 1.1 mu. At around 70 to 80 cents per 500 g, each mu of wheat earns them at best 700 to 800 yuan a year. In comparison, salaries in construction, along with many other short-term city jobs, are at least 40 yuan a day.

Irrigating 1 mu means more than 2 hours' work with a diesel engine, while a report last Friday by Henan's Flood Control and Drought Relief estimated the average cost for irrigating 1 mu of wheat field totaled around 15 yuan. The drought conditions, it said, require the fields to be irrigated at least four times. In other words, Henan will have to spend 3 billion yuan on electricity and diesel for effective irrigation alone, added Xinhua.

Aside from a low grain price, the lack of fields and the high cost of growing crops, China's good harvest over five consecutive years means nearly every rural household is stuffed with stored grain.

"The farmers have managed to feed themselves very well, so they don't really care about growing crops anymore," said a local press officer. "They'll manage even if there is no harvest at all this year."

But that's something the central authorities don't want to hear.

Henan produces a quarter of China's wheat. It gives around 15 billion kg of wheat to other provinces every year, and saves about 35 billion kg to feed its own population - more than 100 million.

Around 15 million of Henan's rural residents are involved in agriculture, while 21 million people work away, according to Lu Zhihua, a division chief of the provincial labor and social security department. But the province only needs 10 million people toiling in the fields, he said.

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