By CHRISTOPHER BODEEN
BEIJING (AP) -- China's key wheat-growing province of Shandong is facing its worst drought in at least 40 years as a result of unusually dry weather across northern and eastern China that stands to put further pressure on surging food prices.
Drought has hit more than half of the land in the province normally used to grow wheat -- about 5 million acres (2 million hectares) -- and that number is rising, according to a notice posted Monday on the provincial water bureau's website.
Many areas have seen no precipitation in four months, and 870,000 acres (353,000 hectares) of spring wheat has already dried up or is beginning to fail, it said. More than 240,000 people and 107,000 head of livestock already have lost access to drinking water and are forced to rely on deliveries from fire trucks.
Still, provincial agriculture officials were far from giving up on the crop. They're hanging their hopes on artificial irrigation in the spring, according to Xie Hongqi, an official quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency.
Unusually dry conditions have spread across much of China's northeastern bread basket, including the provinces of Henan, Shanxi, Hebei, Jiangsu and Anhui. Beijing hasn't been spared and has yet to receive snow this winter.
Information on the drought's impact on grain supplies nationwide wasn't available and it wasn't clear what the net effect would be or whether China would have to increase imports of foreign grain.
Dry weather and higher-than-average temperatures are forecast well into spring. Scientists say it is a result of the La Nina effect that is also responsible for the harsh winter weather still gripping large parts of China's south.
But in some areas water shortages can also be blamed on burgeoning populations. In Beijing, for instance, demand has outstripped supply for the past decade, and the capital has now decided to supplement drinking water supplies with water pumped from the Yellow River. The city's water bureau said Monday that current sources are only sufficient for half of the city's population of 17 million.
Premier Wen Jiabao drew attention to the potential drought disaster with a weekend visit to Henan, where he called on local officials to make greater efforts to assist farmers.
Not only do hundreds of millions of Chinese rely on farming to make a living, but good harvests are crucial to keeping meat, grains and vegetables affordable for the vast majority of lower-class Chinese who spend one-third or more of their income on food.
Rising food prices sent the inflation rate to 4.6 percent in December after hitting a 28-month high of 5.1 percent the month before. That put inflation for the full year at 3.3 percent amid blockbuster 10.3 percent economic growth.
Hypersensitive to any signs of potential unrest, the ruling Communist Party is expected to respond by raising interest rates to tame price rises, potentially hitting consumption levels and slowing the global economy in 2012.
China is the world's largest grain producer at about 500 million tons per year. In order to maintain steady food supplies, it also buys corn, wheat, rice and other crops on global markets.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.