by JASON | 9:02 PM in |

Water supplies have been drying up for decades, the result of pervasive overuse and waste. Underground aquifers have been so depleted that, in some farming regions, wells probe more than 800 meters deep before striking water.

The latest drought is crippling not only the country's best wheat farmland but also the wells that provide clean water to industry and to millions of people.

Before light showers and snow arrived this week, much of the region had not seen rain since October.

Although the showers reduced the hardest-hit drought area by half, more than 46,600 square kilometers, or 18,000 square miles, of farmland remained critically endangered, the Chinese Agriculture Ministry said Friday. About 4.7 million people and 2.5 million livestock were said last week to lack adequate drinking water.

For the Chinese government, already grappling with the fallout from a global economic crisis, this drought is inauspicious. Winter wheat is the nation's second-largest crop, behind rice, and a water shortage could not only drive up world wheat prices, but also raise irrigation costs and cut income for farmers.

The drought is peaking as millions of migrant workers rendered jobless by factory closings and construction shutdowns are returning to rural areas where farming is the main source of income. Government officials are clearly concerned by the prospect of rising unrest among jobless migrants, and failed crops and water shortages only heighten those worries.

Six months into what economists and labor experts say is China's worst job crisis since it began market reforms 30 years ago, many among the most vulnerable -- an estimated 20 million workers who lost their jobs after migrating from the countryside to cities -- are becoming desperate.

As tens of thousands of manufacturing companies have collapsed amid slowing demand due to the global economic crisis, the laid-off workers can no longer find jobs in the cities. For many, returning to their rural roots is not a possibility because their families' farmland has been sold off to make room for shopping malls, office high-rises and apartment complexes -- leaving them with no safety net. Even those lucky enough to have kept their farming plots have been hit hard by a drought -- the country's worst in 50 years, according to the government -- which has affected up to 80 percent of the land for winter crops.

"The drought has had a big impact on farmers. Some villages are out of food," said Lu Xuejing, a professor at the Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing. The impact has been especially pronounced in the nation's northwest, in provinces such as Gansu, where high temperatures combined with sparse rainfall have dried up riverbeds and killed wheat crops. This convergence of factors has meant the unthinkable for a country that in recent years has enjoyed double-digit growth in gross domestic product: As many as 10 percent of China's 130 million migrant workers face what Renmin University professor Yao Yuqun calls "bread-and-butter issues." They are having trouble putting food on the table because "they no longer have farmland, and they lost their jobs in the cities," Yao said.

China, the world's largest producer of wheat, has declared an emergency over a drought which could damage its important wheat crop, threatening further hardship for farmers amid slumping economic growth.

The absence of rain or snow since November has affected 9.5 million hectares of farmland -- 37,000 square miles, or 43 percent of the winter wheat sources.

As the world's top consumer of wheat, China has bought Australian, British and U.S. grain in recent months because of lower international prices and the nation could tap the international market again.