QUJING, Yunnan - The 2010 drought in Southwest China's Yunnan province was described as the worst since the 1950s. It continued last year, and this year may prove to be worse yet.
According to provincial civil affairs authorities, more than 2.43 million people and 1.55 million livestock in Yunnan are short of drinking water.
"The small tank I'm using is five kilometers away from my home and the water is really murky, but I have to bring some water back as my family of four need it to survive," said Xu Wansheng, a 45-year-old farmer in Luliang county, near Qujing, whose wheat land is being used in a water project connecting two reservoirs.
"I will cooperate and do whatever they want as long as the water problem in this place can be solved," he said.
The previous day, he tried five small water tanks around his village to no avail and realized the whole area was without water.
More than 651,000 hectares of land have been stricken by the three-year drought leading to losses in agriculture of 2.22 billion yuan ($353 million).
Zhou Yunlong, head of the Yunnan Provincial Water Resources Bureau, said much depends on the rainfall in March and April.
"If there is no rain in the next two months, Yunnan will be confronted with a severe situation," he said. "We must make drinking water for people and livestock the priority, as lives come first."
Xu owns eight hectares of land and grows wheat, horsebeans and rapeseed in winter.
"I stopped growing horsebeans and rapeseed two years ago because there was not enough water for people to drink, let alone for growing vegetables," he said. "Although I grew some wheat last year with a hope of some harvest, now you can see the crops have all failed. I won't even get any grain."
The hopes of Wu and many others now rest on getting branch water supply lines from the new underground pipeline project that is planned to cross their land.
"The deep wells we dug all dried up and now we're hoping to link a reservoir with water in Lianhuatian to another one without water in Xiaobaihu to provide drinking water for people," said Fu Dongxi, deputy chief of Fanghua town.
He said the project will cost 35 million yuan, a huge part of Luliang county's annual revenue, and involved several towns.
"This water is to secure the county seat's use, and we are still considering if we should build some branches along the main pipeline," said Fu.
The average rainfall of Yunnan in 2011 was 869 millimeters, down 21 percent from previous years.
According to Yunnan Provincial Meteorological Bureau, rainfall in winter is usually rare in Yunnan, but abnormal atmospheric conditions in recent years have made the situation worse.
The forecast predicts no change with continued sunny weather and little effective rainfall, and it is feared the drought will further deteriorate in March and April.
The central government initiated emergency measures last week with the National Commission for Disaster Reduction and the Ministry of Civil Affairs dispatching teams to help with relief work.
In Shilin county, 78 km from provincial capital Kunming and famous for its karst stone forest, 70 percent of the land has been hit by drought.
Li Yong, 45, is working in a small pumping station on Huangzhushan Mountain, 30 km from the town. They are drilling a hole 40 m deep in order to tap water resources.
"The air is really thin and we have to climb out for fresh air every hour," he said.
He realized they had to speed up operations as the lives of more than 3,000 people were depending on this pumping station.
With rich water sources found underground in karst areas, the government is shifting its focus on constructing water projects.
Reservoirs will be moved from high ground, where they collect rainfall, to lower regions to access groundwater.
After water shortages in 2010, Yunnan introduced the "five smalls" water conservation project, comprising small water vault, tank, pumping station, pond and channel.
In 2011, the province built 450,000 "five smalls" projects.
"That this year's drought is similar to 2010's is due to an historic lack of water conservation projects in Yunnan," said Zheng Baohua, director of the Rural Development Institute of Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences.
He said as a mountainous region, Yunnan normally receives less funding for large- and medium-size water projects from the central government, and the level of construction remains quite low.
"Yunnan increased construction of water facilities' over the past two years," he said. "But due to a consistent lack of rain, the newly built projects couldn't perform to their best, so this region is still facing the problem of weak facilities."
Ma Hongqi, of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said that building a water diversion project in the middle of the province is one way of solving drought problems.
"Building small water conservation projects is okay but can't solve the fundamental problem," he said. "Directing water from the Yangtze River in northwestern Yunnan to the central part would effectively solve the water problem in six cities in central Yunnan."
Earlier this month, Qin Guangrong, secretary of the Yunnan Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China, said at a meeting that the government would spend around 600 million yuan on water diversion projects in 2012.