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Korean Peninsula Faces Worst Drought in a Century

A dead fish on the cracked bed of a reservoir after months of severe drought, Seoul, South Korea, June 26, 2012.
A dead fish on the cracked bed of a reservoir after months of severe drought, Seoul, South Korea, June 26, 2012.
Large parts of the Korean peninsula are battling the worst regional water shortages in more than a century, with reports of North Korean soldiers hand-carrying water to irrigate parched farmland, and 80 percent of the South facing extreme drought.

North Korean news reports on Tuesday said more than 20,000 hectares of cropland have been destroyed in Hwanghae province alone, and said regional water reservoirs are empty. In a rare public acknowledgement, the Korean Central News Agency said farming "has been severely affected by the devastating drought." It also acknowledged the deployment of "servicepersons, officials of ministries and national institutions, and other people," in a push to stem the crisis.

In Seoul, South Korean Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik warned of looming price hikes for produce and cuts in water supplies. Since April, the capital has received only 7 percent of the rainfall it experienced during the same period last year.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) quotes North Korean officials as saying about 90 percent of non-paddy cultivated areas in five key provinces have been hit hardest by weeks of dry, hot weather.

FAO spokesman Kisan Gunjal says the duration of the dry spell is unclear, as are the prospects for replanting the country's key maize crop if rainfall materializes.

“If it rains within one or two weeks, the maize could still be replanted," he said. "But then there’s a big question as to whether they have enough seed to do that or not.”

Forecasters predict possible rainfall for the eastern half of the peninsula late this week, but meteorologists say that whatever precipitation materializes will not significantly alter arid conditions in the region.

The head of a key German relief agency operating in the North says it is unclear whether crops - particularly maize - will survive current conditions. Wolfgang Jamann, who heads the German aid agency Welthungerhilfe, told reporters in Beijing last week that he saw North Korean children using bottles and buckets to water crops by hand in two southern provinces. He spoke after a nearly week-long visit to the North.

North Korea endured famine in the 1990s that killed an estimated one million people. Its population continues to experience chronic food shortages - much of which Western analysts blame on government mismanagement and an economic system that saps farmer productivity.

In the face of ongoing shortages, Pyongyang staged a controversial rocket launch earlier this year, in defiance of a United Nations prohibitions and drawing widespread international condemnation. In response, the United States canceled a deal under which Washington was to have provided 240,000 metric tons of emergency food supplies to the North.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and Reuters.
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