China's Yangtze River Running Dry

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While tornadoes, floods and fires have raged across the United States, in China the mix of weather is just as variable. Yesterday in the city of Weihai, in east China's Shandong province, blowing sand from the Gobi desert necessitated a "yellow" wind alert. Last weekend, floods in the south resulted in a fatal landslide. And along the east coast, droughts have reduced the Yangtze River to its lowest water levels in 50 years.

Officials from the Yangtze River Waterway Bureau said Wednesday that they have closed a 185-kilometer (115-mile) stretch of river from Wuhan to Yueyang to oceangoing vessels.

The river near Wuhan is down to only about 10 feet. The river, normally almost 500 feet wide, has shriveled to only about 160 feet at its narrowest.

Since April 30, more than 700 ships have been stranded in the shrunken waterway in Huzhou, Xinhua News Agency reported. Officials believe the shallow water will continue hindering shipping until June.

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"The severe drought, the first seen in the past half-century, has kept the water level in the Yangtze the lowest since 2003, when the Three Gorges Dam went into operation," said Wu Heping, director of the Wuhan Waterway bureau, in an interview with China Daily.

The drought has left 400,000 people in Hubei province without drinking water, according to an AFP report. In Hunan, 320,000 people are without drinking water, according to China Daily.

Water now gushes from the Three Gorges Dam at a rate of about 1,850,000 gallons per second. That is about 397,000 gallons per second more than the dam collects, but it has not yet been seen if this will solve the drought.

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Rainfall was roughly 50 percent below normal in the region between October 2010 and April of this year. The rainy season usually begins in late April, and there have been a few rains, but some officials are still worried.

"Even though heavy rains are expected in coming months, it's possible they won't raise the water level much," the China Daily quoted  Wu Heping.

In an effort to bring more rain, the Chinese have even used rain-making techniques.

"Starting from 3 a.m. on Tuesday, we launched 57 rocket projectiles and 320 artillery projectiles," remarked Xu Zhaonan, director of the Xiangyang meteorological bureau, in China Daily.

The rain brought some relief to local farmers.

"During the drought, we only planted a little sweet potato in the field, but this rain has brought hope for us," farmer Zhang Dequn commented to China Daily.

In the area around Xianyang, in Shaanxi province, about 741,000 acres of agricultural land are affected by the drought. In Hubei province, close to 2 million acres of cropland are dry.

The lack of rain is also affecting power production. Hydropower plants in Hunan province are producing less than a third of their capacity.

Besides the lack of rain, some experts blame the Three Gorges Dam.

Wang Jingquan, director of the flood control and drought relief office affiliated with the Yangtze River Water Resources Committee, told China Daily that damming up the river has aggravated the drought by pinching off water flow to lower reaches.

But another official said such assertions are groundless. Yan Fei, director of the China Three Gorges Corporation's press office, said statistics show the dam's increased discharge of water has helped to relieve the drought.

Other parts of China are suffering from the opposite of a drought.

Heavy rains in southern China caused a massive landslide this past weekend. More than 22 quarry workers were buried alive in a dormitory near Luojiang in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The death toll now stands at 12 at least. One worker is known to have survived.

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"We first saw smoke rising up in the valley, then the rocks and mud gushing out. The dormitory was soon buried underneath," said Chen Yuanliang, a villager who witnessed the landslide, in People’s Daily.

The landslide covered an area equivalent to two basketball courts with about 15 feet of mud and debris, according to He Qishi, deputy chief engineer of the region's general geological environment monitoring station.

IMAGE 1: A cargo ship with 2,500 tons of steel bars ran aground at the Chongqing section of the Yangtze River in the southwest China's Chongqing Municipality on May 3, 2011. (Xinhua/Chen Cheng/Corbis).

IMAGE 2: The reservoir of the Three Gorges Dam (Wikimedia Commons). 

IMAGE 3: A cargo vessel sails in Nanchang section of Ganjiang River, east China's Jiangxi Province, April 28, 2011. Major rivers in Jiangxi, including the Ganjiang River, the second largest tributary of the Yangtze River, and the Fuhe River, which flows into Poyang Lake, recorded their lowest historical level of the same period on Wednesday. Since late March, the drought has affected 6.52 million mu (about 434,667 hectares) of paddy fields in Jiangxi, where precipitation hit a record low in the past few months of this year (Xinhua/Zhou Mi/Corbis).

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