BEIJING - The severe drought that has blighted the Yangtze River region has now dried up thousands of rivers and lakes, damaged farmland and posed navigational problems for shipping.
A satellite image of the area taken on Saturday shows that the water of Poyang Lake - China's largest body of fresh water - had shrunk by 34 percent compared to the same period last year. Dongting Lake - the nation's second-largest freshwater lake - is about 31 percent smaller than it was this time last year, according to the China Meteorological Administration.
However, there does seem to be some relief in sight. Chen Zhenlin, director of the administration's emergency response, disaster mitigation and public services department, said the worst drought for five decades could be eased by medium-to-heavy rain that is predicted to fall on the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River between Friday and Monday.
"Local meteorological bureaus will take any opportunities available to enhance the precipitation through cloud seeding," he said at a news conference in Beijing on Tuesday.
But the drought is likely to continue in Anhui, Hubei, Hunan, Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Jiangsu and Shanghai for a while being because the amount of precipitation expected there will be about half of the usual quantity seen at this time of year. Some regions have now been without rain for more than 60 days, statistics from the administration show.
According to Hubei's provincial agriculture bureau, the direct economic losses suffered by both arable and livestock farmers as well as the aquaculture industry now stands at more than 8 billion yuan ($1.2 billion).
The Anhui provincial flood control and drought relief bureau said that, as of Monday, 269 small rivers and 266 small reservoirs in its jurisdiction had dried up. The bureau issued a third-level drought alarm in response.
Hunan is facing its driest spell since 1910 and more than 709,000 hectares of farmland have now been damaged, while more than 1.1 million people were short of drinking water as of Monday, according to the provincial flood control and drought relief bureau.
"In many ways, the drought can be called an extreme weather event," Chen said.
Between March 1 and Monday, less than 194 millimeters of rain fell on the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, which is about 53 percent less than the usual level of 410 mm, according to the China Meteorological Administration's statistics.
The Three Gorges Dam has increased its outflow of water in a bid to raise the level of downstream rivers.
The dam's water level was 149.65 meters on Tuesday afternoon, just 4.65 meters above the 145-meter level that is said to be the lower limit needed to maintain safe shipping lanes upstream, according to the China Three Gorges Corporation.
Some hydrologists and water officials said China's weak management of water resources had amplified the impact of the drought on people's livelihoods.
"We have been caught unprepared," water officials from drought-ravaged areas admitted to Xinhua News Agency, adding that they ordinarily have to deal with too much water at this time of year.
With most parts of China now entering the traditional flooding season, Chen warned local authorities to pay attention to the potential for geological disasters, such as mudslides.
Land has become too dry to easily absorb water because of the drought, Chen explained, and heavy rain could wash earth away easily, triggering mudslides.