By Jeremiah Jenne [see Update below]
BEIJING, China -- It didn't rain today. Now, usually that wouldn't be much of a lead, but here in North China this counts as news. Since last September, we've had almost no precipitation other than a few days of snow last month, and that came courtesy of China's weather modification teams.
Other areas haven't even been that lucky. Winter wheat crops are failing throughout the region and farmers are now worried that if conditions don't improve soon, the drought will seriously jeopardize the all-important spring planting season.
There are serious environmental ramifications from the lack of water beyond farming. Beijing is one of the few major world cities not located on a significant river or body of water. It sits instead on a large brackish aquifer and relies on a series of man-made reservoirs and canals for its water supply. Despite the best efforts of China's engineers, Beijing's demand for water is rapidly depleting already limited supplies and the continuing drought only accelerates this dangerous trend.
There's also an important social dynamic. With world food prices at their highest level in almost three years, the possibility of a massive failure of the winter wheat crop has the government on alert. Earlier this week I wrote a post in which I downplayed the chances of a North African-style "Jasmine Revolution" breaking out in China, and I still doubt that messages posted on overseas websites will have the reach or the audience sufficient to spark mass demonstrations, but this continuing drought coupled with rising food prices presents a very real threat.
On their best days, the Chinese state security apparatus is run by hopped-up officials whose baseline level of paranoia is enough to make Charlie Sheen seem like a Zen Master, but as I wrote on Monday, the government usually cares less about isolated "mass incidents" than they do about the possibility of different groups linking their grievances together. Anonymous letters on overseas websites accessible only with an expensive VPN are not going to do that, but a drought is a different story, and a drought coupled with crop failures resulting in a spike in food prices means the hardship of farmers will start to be shared by those in the cities.
It's an old story. The Chinese archives are full of natural disasters. Some, like floods or typhoons came upon an area with sudden speed and power and then just as suddenly receded or moved away. In the records these are sometimes referred to as "dragons" - mobile, capricious, taking their fury from one place to another.
But the accounts of drought are different. They happened over time, and as the weeks turned to months and crops withered and died, desperate farmers waited for the emperor to make things right. Part of the gig of being an emperor meant looking toward heaven and asking the gods to please unbottle the skies.