China Reduces Wheat Irrigation as Farming Depletes Groundwater

China is reducing crop irrigation in regions with water shortages as the world’s biggest grain consumer seeks to ease pressure on declining aquifers.

Hebei province, the nation’s third-biggest wheat grower, will cut wheat irrigation by 760,000 mu (50,667 hectares) or 2 percent of the crop it planted last year, according to Hebei News, a website run by the regional government.

That’s the first time a province in China, the world’s biggest consumer of wheat, has adopted measures that placed the environment ahead of grain production, said Hu Bingchuan, a researcher at the state-funded Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The country is well-supplied with grain this year and policy makers are more receptive toward importing it, he said.

“China’s water crisis is recognized by the central leadership, which set this policy,” Hu said by phone from Beijing today.

The country will “adjust the use of the farmland that is heavily polluted or with severely withdrawn ground aquifers, implement land and lake reserves,” Xinhua News Agency reported Nov. 15, citing the Communist Party’s 18th Congress.

Agriculture accounts for more than 70 percent of the water usage in Hebei, according to a report by Xinhua on May 9.

Wheat futures traded at 2,723 yuan a metric ton on the Zhengzhou Commodity Exchange, or $12.06 a bushel, at 10:34 a.m. in Beijing. The grain in Chicago was at $5.035 a bushel.

Reduced Yield

Hebei will spend 1.2 billion yuan ($195 million) to compensate farmers for the reduced yield and to promote water-conserving crops, Hebei News said in the report dated Sept. 9. Farmers are also encouraged to stop planting corn following wheat in the same year, and can grow only one crop annually to rest the land, it said.

A total of 44,900 square kilometers (17,336 square miles) of land in Hebei, an area bigger than Denmark, has sunk more than 300 millimeters from the normal state as a result of groundwater depletion, according to a report posted July 15, 2013 on the Hebei government’s website.

Reducing irrigation is also an economic decision as the costs of fuel, labor and machines to pump a deep well often exceed the value a farmer gets from increased grain, Hu said.

The government may only gradually ease irrigation as it still sees grain security as “geopolitically sensitive,” Ma Jun, Beijing-based founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said by phone Sept. 12. “It’s a step in the right direction, but not big enough,” he said.

China’s summer grain output rose 3.6 percent to 136.6 million tons, an 11th year of increase, according to data by the National Bureau of Statistics on July 16.

— With assistance by William Bi

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