By Andrew Torchia
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Millions of people and cattle in north China face shortages of drinking water because of a severe drought, the government said on Saturday, promising to speed up disbursement of billions of dollars of subsidies to farmers.
State television quoted disaster relief officials as saying 4.4 million people and 2.1 million cattle lacked adequate drinking water. Official media have described the drought as north China's worst in half a century.
The Ministry of Finance said it would accelerate disbursement of 86.7 billion yuan ($12.7 billion) of annual subsidies for farmers to assist grain production and minimize the impact of the drought on rural incomes.
The government is particularly anxious to avoid a drop in rural incomes because of the threat of social unrest as millions of migrant workers, laid off from urban jobs during China's economic slump, return to the countryside.
Instead of distributing the farm subsidies evenly over this year as it did in the past, the finance ministry said it was immediately disbursing the entire 15.1 billion yuan earmarked to supplement the incomes of grain farmers.
It is also immediately disbursing part of a 71.6 billion yuan sum earmarked to aid capital spending by farmers. The ministry called on provincial governments to deliver that money into the hands of farmers in the worst-hit areas within a month.
However, meteorological officials said there were signs that better rainfall in coming weeks would ease the crisis. Rainfall is forecast for the next 10 days, the official Xinhua news agency quoted the China Meteorological Administration as saying.
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