The agriculture ministry has called on central and northern provinces hit by the worst drought in 40 years to encourage a major shift from rice cultivation to drought-resistant crops.

The ministry's Plant Cultivation Department has asked all localities in these regions to advise farmers and issue policies supporting this shift, according to Tin Tuc (News) newspaper.

It said the area that would switch from rice cultivation for the 2014-2015 winter-spring crop and the 2015 summer-autumn crop would account for about 60 percent of the originally planned 8,527ha.

However, the report also expressed some skepticism of the plan, because the prolonged water shortage has made it difficult for localities to grow even drought-tolerant plants.

An earlier report by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) said that about 50,000ha of farmland across the country have been rendered barren by the prolonged drought, mostly in the provinces of Binh Thuan, Ninh Thuan, Khanh Hoa and Quang Tri.

It said localities have taken various measures to cope with the drought including digging ponds, sourcing underground water, and dredging canals to try and provide water for irrigation and daily use. They have also worked with hydropower plants to release water from their reservoirs and asked residents to save water.

Furthermore, the ministry has proposed that the Government provides financial assistance to help provinces overcome consequences of the drought. Emergency mitigation measures carried out by the ministry is said to have cost 57.5 billion VND (2.6 million USD) so far.

The Tin Tuc (News) report quoted Nguyen Xuan Dinh, head of the Agriculture Department in Quynh Luu district, Nghe An province, as saying nearly 500ha of 7,500ha of rice fields have been switched to other crops.

The department has asked provincial authorities to provide capital support to compensate for losses suffered by farmers and help them restructure their farming activities.

Ho Duc Hai, who lives in Quynh Luu district's An Hoa commune, said his family had finished transplanting rice seedlings on nearly 1,000sq.m for the summer-autumn crop, but these had wilted and died in the heat.

"My family had to switch to growing corn on that land," Hai told Tin Tuc.

"I hope that the Government will issue policies to support people in shifting from rice to other crops," he said.

In the central province of Ninh Thuan, where reservoirs have almost completely dried up with water below 10 percent of their design capacity, officials plan to stop planting rice on 10,229ha for the summer-autumn crop.

The province has received some rainfall in recent days, but not enough for farmers to irrigate their rice fields. The province, therefore, plans to grow corn, beans and grass for livestock on the rice fields, said Phan Van Thuu, Deputy Director of the Ninh Thuan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Households shifting from rice to other cash crops will receive assistance with seeds as well as application of modern technology in production, he said.-VNA