SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Millions of people and cattle in north China face shortages of drinking water because of a severe drought, the government said on Saturday, promising to speed up disbursement of billions of dollars of subsidies to farmers.
State television quoted disaster relief officials as saying 4.4 million people and 2.1 million cattle lacked adequate drinking water. Official media have described the drought as north China's worst in half a century.
The Ministry of Finance said it would accelerate disbursement of 86.7 billion yuan ($12.7 billion) of annual subsidies for farmers to assist grain production and minimize the impact of the drought on rural incomes.
The government is particularly anxious to avoid a drop in rural incomes because of the threat of social unrest as millions of migrant workers, laid off from urban jobs during China's economic slump, return to the countryside.
Instead of distributing the farm subsidies evenly over this year as it did in the past, the finance ministry said it was immediately disbursing the entire 15.1 billion yuan earmarked to supplement the incomes of grain farmers.
It is also immediately disbursing part of a 71.6 billion yuan sum earmarked to aid capital spending by farmers. The ministry called on provincial governments to deliver that money into the hands of farmers in the worst-hit areas within a month.
However, meteorological officials said there were signs that better rainfall in coming weeks would ease the crisis. Rainfall is forecast for the next 10 days, the official Xinhua news agency quoted the China Meteorological Administration as saying.
Xiao Ziniu, director of China's National Climate Center, was quoted as saying most of north China's wheat belt was expected to receive slightly less than or nearly normal rainfall in March.
Xiao said earlier in the week that losses in China's winter wheat fields could be limited to just 2.5 percent if farmers moved quickly enough to irrigate their fields.
The drought is hitting eight provinces which contain about half of China's wheat-growing areas. As of Friday, 10.7 million hectares of wheat-growing fields had been affected in those provinces, the Ministry of Agriculture said.
Of that area, 4.5 million hectares were seriously damaged and 420,000 hectares suffered destruction of wheat shoots, the ministry said. Just over half of the total affected area had been irrigated so far.
($1 = 6.83 yuan)
(Additional reporting by Edmund Klamann; Editing by Sugita Katyal)