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A fisherman tries to paddle his boat through a small stream amid the partly dried-up Honghu Lake in Honghu, Hubei province.


Chinese authorities will step up the release of water from the Three Gorges Dam in a bid to tackle a drought in southern China which has put pressure on drinking water, crops, shipping lanes and electricity production in what is traditionally China's most water-abundant region.

The monsoon rains that usually flood southern China's middle Yangtze river in spring did not come this year, and officials say rainfall in Hubei, Jiangxi, Anhui, Jiangsu and Zhejiang is at its lowest level in more than 50 years.

"Such large-scale scarcity in southern China is very serious and the scale is much larger than before," said Zhang Ximing, a water resources specialist at the World Bank who recently returned from drought-stricken Jiangxi.

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While droughts are not uncommon in China, water shortages have steadily worsened during the past decade, as increased agricultural irrigation and worsening water contamination have hit supplies. China's available water per capita is just a quarter of the world average and the lowest of any large economy, according to the World Bank.

Water releases from the Three Gorges reservoir, which is upstream from the drought areas, will be increased by 10-20 per cent today, according to the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Office.

Water has already been released at a rate of 10,000 cubic metres per second since last Friday, causing the level of the reservoir to fall by one metre every two days, say dam operators.

In Hubei and Hunan provinces, the drought has threatened drinking supplies for more than one million people. In neighbouring Jiangxi province, Poyang Lake, China's largest freshwater lake, has hit a 59-year low and rice transplants around it have stopped.

Bulk shipping carriers were banned on May 11 from using a 228-kilometre stretch of the Yangtze because of low water levels.

"It rings a big alarm bell when the Yangtze itself is facing drought," says Ma Jun, an environmental activist and author of China's Water Crisis. "The total population supported by this river basin is around 400 million people - it's the most important watershed in China."

Government drought relief programs have brought in water carriers, pumps and generators to parts of Hunan and Hubei provinces, which lie at the heart of China's rice-growing region.

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The state's efforts have even included cloud seeding to induce rain artificially, which resulted in light rainfall in some parts of Hubei province over the weekend.

"Lots of villagers don't have water to drink," Chen Tianlin, a rice farmer in Jielin village, Hubei province, told the Financial Times.

He has to travel for 40 minutes by tractor over steep mountain roads to buy water in a neighbouring village. "It hasn't rained for six months," he sighs. "All the rice fields have dried up."

Lake systems around the central Yangtze river have also dried up. In Hubei province, 1,400 small lakes have become so shrivelled that authorities have declared them "dead" and banned any water pumping, state media reported.

"Human activities have intensified the drought [in Hubei]" says Guo Qinghan, an economics professor at the Hubei Academy of Social Sciences.

"Because of improper developments like land reclamation and soil erosion, some lakes are as shallow as dinner plates."

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Min Qian, director of the Jiangxi water and sand department near Poyang Lake, said this year's drought was the worst he had ever seen and would have an impact on rice planting and fish spawning. "When I was a child, we never heard of the words 'spring drought.' It was quite rare," Mr. Min says.

Despite localized drought, China's farms are still expected to report a bumper harvest of wheat and rice this year, according to the China National Grain and Oils Information Center.

But analysts believe mounting concerns over water scarcity could prompt the government to raise water tariffs.

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