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Irrigation falters on fagged sluices

SMALL canals and sluices that link China's reservoirs and major rivers with farmlands are too old to channel enough water for crops and may threaten the safety of grain supply for the country's 1.3 billion people, according to lawmakers attending the annual session of the National People's Congress.

China has paid much attention to building big reservoirs and waterways but neglected the construction of smaller ditches and channels, some of which have not been renovated for decades, said Hua Youxun, Party secretary of Zhumadian City of central China's Henan Province.

The city, a major grain producing area with annual output of around 6.5 million tons, will see this year's production affected by a worst-in-decades drought, said Hua, also a deputy to the National People's Congress.

The city's anti-drought efforts were compromised by the poor condition of local irrigation projects, which were damaged by floods in 1975 and are not fully restored yet, Hua said.

From October 2008 through to last month, persistent dry weather hit most parts of north China, parching 10.73 hectares of cropland, leaving 4.37 million people and 2.1 million heads of livestock short of drinking water.

Some small water conservancy projects can't function well because newly built large reservoirs on the upper reaches of major rivers such as the Yellow River and the Yangtze River have reduced water levels downstream.

"Many of our main pumping stations were built in the 1950s," said Zhu Jianhua, an NPC deputy from Jianli County, the biggest grain producing county in Hubei Province. "Without upgrading, they will have a negative impact on production."

Only 57.8 million hectares, or nearly half of China's total arable land, has access to irrigation, said Wang Xiaodong, a Ministry of Water Resources official, earlier this month.

Among the irrigated fields, 40.6 million hectares benefit from a total of 40,000 small- and medium-sized irrigation networks, according to Wang. Less than 40 percent of the networks' facilities are in good condition, he said.

China's State Council, or Cabinet, issued last week a decree on drought relief, which holds governments above the county level responsible for maintaining irrigation facilities.

Premier Wen Jiabao said in a government work report last week that more money will be spent on public works in mid-western rural areas and that local governments at or below the country level won't be required to share the financial burden.

Hua said the move will be heartening but can't solve all problems.

The household management of farmland makes it difficult to collectively plan and build irrigation projects, said Chen Yiyu, an academician with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.


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