Rain, river diversion plans ease China drought

(Adds Premier Wen Jiabao, rainmaking, river diversion plans)

BEIJING, Feb 8 (Reuters) - Rain fell in drought-stricken north central China after the government brought in rain-making scientists, and officials have promised to divert two major rivers to help farmers, state media said on Sunday.

Over the weekend Premier Wen Jiabao visited drought-stricken areas, where the government has declared a state of emergency. He called the relief work "top priority", and a key part of efforts to revive the economy amid the global financial woes.

"It is of vital significance to the overall economy to boost steady growth of grain production and farmers' income" as China is in a key stage to cope with the global financial crisis," the official Xinhua agency quoted him saying.

The government has already taken a small step towards protecting rural cash flow, raising the minimum price paid for a tonne of wheat purchased by the state reserves system by 200 yuan a tonne, Xinhua said. It did not report the new floor price.

Wen told local governments to speed up water management projects, guarantee supplies of fertilizer and pesticide, and subsidize purchases of farm machinery for those in greatest need.

China has earmarked 86.7 billion yuan ($12.69 billion) for handouts to badly-hit farmers and another 400 million yuan for drought relief work by local authorities.

Experts say that Beijing's moves to fund last-minute irrigation could fend off a crisis, reviving crops that might otherwise have been left to die by farmers struggling with low prices and oversupply.


Weather officials have also been trying to improve the situation by boosting the amount of water on the ground, deploying rainmaking tools including cloud-seeding rockets across key wheat-growing areas.

The bread-basket states affected by the lack of water saw anything from 0.5 to 5 millimetres of rain after the bid to open the skies, Xinhua reported.

Areas still dry also saw an encouraging gathering of clouds.

To help tide over any shortfalls water from the country's longest river, the Yangtze, will be diverted north to meet growing demand as temperatures rise, the report quoted a Ministry of Water Resources official saying.

Water supply on the Yellow river will also be boosted, as officials open dams upriver from the worst-hit provinces. Some 5 billion cubic metres has already been released, Xinhua said.

Eight provinces, and around half of China's wheat growing areas, are at risk. So far 10.7 million hectares of crop have been affected along with 4.4 million people, the report said.

In March most of the area is expected to receive nearly normal rainfall, or just slightly less than usual, state media have quoted the director of the National Climate Centre saying. ($1=6.834 Yuan) (Reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Mike Nesbit)