Dry reality of droughts in China

Updated: 2014-08-18 07:53

By Cecilia Tortajada and Asit K. Biswas(China Daily)

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China overexploits groundwater by about 22 billion cubic meters every year. This has major implications for drought management since it steadily depletes river and lake levels, making more areas vulnerable to drought.

Nearly two-thirds of the water used in China is for agriculture. Since this cannot be sustained during droughts, the use of groundwater increases dramatically. In fact, the use of water in agriculture has been on an unsustainable path for decades. If this continues, China will have to live with droughts.

The main problem is that China manages droughts as an emergency and disaster-relief situation, which is reasonably effective in the short term, but it is not suited to managing long-term widespread droughts. A negative side of the current policy is that farmers and agribusinesses are taking unnecessary risks because they are confident that the government will bail them out during droughts. Also, technical measures address the symptoms, not the disease.

China has more than 200 million small farms, most of which don't have the capability to manage their risks. Hence, as the industrialization and mechanization of agriculture continues, China should formulate proactive policies to diversify farmers' production risks and adopt effective strategies to manage droughts.

Another problem is that many farmers grow water-intensive crops in drought-prone areas, which depletes the water sources further. To address the problem, the government must encourage farmers to grow crops that require less water.

The government also needs to lay greater emphasis on plant breeding and genetic modification to develop new varieties of crops that are drought-tolerant and saline-resistant. For example, researchers in Egypt have shown that by transferring a single gene from barley to wheat, the water requirement for growing wheat could be reduced by more than 80 percent. But countries such as China and India need to approve genetically modified crops only after appropriate research on their safety.

More importantly, China needs a vigorous domestic debate on whether it wants to achieve food self-sufficiency or food security. Food security means food affordability and accessibility both. Thanks to China's strong economic growth, an increasing number of middle-class people can afford to pay for food irrespective of where it comes from. With proper diversification of food sources, food prices in China could actually decline and make drought management more effective. And with proper innovative policies, China can tackle droughts much better in the future.

Cecilia Tortajada is a senior research fellow and Asit K. Biswas is a distinguished visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, and the co-founders of the Third World Centre for Water Management in Mexico.

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