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N. China drought rings alarms to insufficient rural water supplies
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As he watched his neighbors cart back drinkable water from 15 kilometers away, Xue Maolin had mixed feelings: The menace of drought has been temporarily curbed, but where is the permanent cure for water shortage?

For the 81-year-old farmer in Xiaojing Village of Hebei's Shexian County, the sight is reminiscent of a rare drought he experienced 50 years ago when locals had to spend the whole day carrying buckets of water on shoulder poles from a river more than 50 kilometers away.

"Compared to that nightmare, securing drinkable water no longer brings us so much fuss nowadays, as we may go to neighboring villages and make use of their deep pumping wells. It will take only a few hours," said Xue.

Xiaojing Village has pumping wells, too. But most of them are shallow and dry up fast amid lingering drought. Manmade cellars and storage tanks for spring water and rainfall have also dried up.

Official figures show that in Shexian County alone, there are 21 villages including Xiaojing without easy access to clean, drinkable water.

Nearly 10,000 farmers suspend work every day to retrieve water from somewhere outside their villages, sources with the Water Resources Branch of Shexian County said.

"As long as we get clean water, we won't panic any more," said Xue.

The process for getting water in Xiaojing is well-organized. Staff from local water departments are posted in every thirsty village to maintain order. Local government staff help make sure queues run efficiently.

The government also decided to subsidize villages that must import water from neighboring villages for two months -- roughly equivalent to a per capita stipend of 0.6 yuan (about 8.8 U.S. cents) per day. The daily water consumption is rationed to 30 liters per person.

Although interim water pipelines have been put into place in some villages, both officials and farmers want to build more water facilities and establish a standard protocol for dealing with this and future droughts.

Handan Water Resources Bureau chief Liu Mengxiang said that an imminent task was to accelerate water supply facility construction in the rural areas to permanently address water shortages.

"Shexian and Wu'an counties have long been relying upon rainfall collection for drinking as local hydrological and geological conditions have made it difficult to gain access to water resources," Liu said.

As the government increases its capital input in rural water conservation projects, Liu said one solution was to drill more deep pumping wells in water-rich regions and build a centralized water station to provide tap water for dozens of villages.

The devastating drought has threatened 83.8 million mu (5.5 million hectares) of farmland in northern China, leaving 4.6 million people and 2.5 million heads of livestock with poor access to drinking water as of Feb. 17, according to the Office of State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters.

Northern and western China has always been plagued with water shortage problems. Between 2000 and 2008, China invested 61.8 billion yuan (9 billion U.S. dollars) in rural water conservation projects, bringing relief to 160 million farmers.

Deputy Water Resources Minister E Jingping said that the government was highly concerned with rural water safety and pledged to resolve the issue by 2013.

"Without persistent government input, the situation could be worse," he said.

Official figures showed that in 2002 when the drought-stricken area was only 56 percent of what it is this year, the rural population in need of drinking water was four times as much as this year.

But for Liu Mengxiang, the mission of providing clean drinking water for the rural is extremely arduous as the drought seriously affects people's normal lives.

"More capital input would provide a better relief," he said.

(Xinhua News Agency February 17, 2009)

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