The snow that graced the city last week amid the rumble of spring festival firecrackers, still lighting up the night sky and contributing intermittent booms throughout the day, was a welcome respite to this excessively dry Beijing winter. The 1 mm of snow that dusted the capital from February 9-10, and the additional 1.7-3.1 mm on February 13, were acts of a central government desperate to combat the worst drought China has experienced in 60 years. Before last week, there had been no precipitation in Beijing for 108 consecutive days, making this the latest first snow since 1950. The entire North China plain is suffering from inadequate precipitation, with potentially disasterous consequences for the upcoming spring harvest of winter wheat.
On February 8, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations issued a ‘special alert‘ (pdf) on on this issue, warning that if temperatures in February sink or if the current drought continues into spring, as many as 5.16 million hectares of the total 14 million hectares planted to winter wheat in China could be adversely affected. The drought is particularly serious in Shandong, Jiangsu, Henan, Hebei, and Shanxi provinces, together home to 60% of the area planted to winter wheat in China and two-thirds of national wheat production. A crop failure of this magnitude would be calamitous. Already, farmers are struggling to make ends meet, food prices are rising, and the countryside is strapped for water supply.
The much needed snow was part of a central government policy package to address drought, lurking social unrest from rising food prices, and food security. Authorities announced last week that they would dedicate $1 billion in emergency aid to divert water, dig emergency wells, and improve irrigation systems. Shooting over 1400 silver iodide rods into clouds to make it snow was part of that package. It’s an attempt, but it won’t solve the much more systematic problems of how water is being used and distributed in China today, or how grains are priced, sold, and controlled worldwide. (NOTE: Authorities also pledged about $540 billion over the next 10 years for water conservation and further water diversion projects.)
While Chinese authorities are, of course, primarily concerned with the consequences of drought and the possibility of a much diminished wheat harvest within China, international analysts are focused on what the situation might mean for global wheat supplies and prices. China is the world’s largest wheat producer and consumer, and is largely self-sufficient, with wheat imports and exports paling in comparison. If the spring winter wheat crop fails, or is significantly reduced, China will no doubt import to make up for the shortfall.
Already, wheat prices and futures are increasing both in China and on the CBOT; the same kind of price speculation that played a role in the world food price crisis in 2007-2008. So while farmers in the North China Plain are bracing for crop losses that will squash their already meager annual incomes, 2.57 million people in China are facing drinking water shortages, and the poor around the world are struggling to afford once-again increasing foodstuffs, international grain traders are gearing up for what will likely be another year of record profits.
The food crisis never ended. Drought in China simply adds just one more page to the long, unfolding history of crisis and inequality that defines the current global order and the global food system. All the artificially-induced snow in the world can’t save us now.