Image: Girl carries water bottles
A girl fetches water from a mountain spring at a village in China's Guizhou province on Monday.
updated 3/27/2010 11:55:51 AM ET 2010-03-27T15:55:51

Emergency wells were being drilled and cloud-seeding operations carried out in southern China, where the worst drought in decades has left millions of people without water and caused more than 1,000 schools to close, officials said Thursday.

Provincial and national land resources bureau officials met in Kunming, capital of the hardest-hit province of Yunnan, to discuss details of deploying workers to dig wells and increase cloud seeding and other aid to people in need of drinking water, according to a director at the Yunnan Land Resources Bureau, surnamed Ma.

"The situation here will get worse in the coming months before it gets any better, but hopefully with more wells and water being diverted to those in need, we can help ease the situation," said Ma, who like many Chinese officials would give only his surname.

The drought, which has left southwestern China suffering since last year, has affected about 61 million people and left more than 12 million acres barren in Guizhou, Yunnan, Sichuan, Chongqing and Guangxi, the official Xinhua News Agency cited the Ministry of Civil Affairs as saying.

For parts of Yunnan, it is the worst drought in a century, with about 5.4 million people facing water shortages, Ma said.

Workers there are drilling daily in hopes of digging 1,035 wells by mid-May, with 52 already functioning and 288 under way, providing 20 percent of the needed drinking water, he said.

"Cloud seeding hasn't been very successful, so even though we are drilling for wells and diverting water from dams to people in need, new areas will begin to suffer as long as there is no rain," said Ma.

No details were given on the cloud-seeding efforts. China has been experimenting with weather modification for decades, using a technique known as cloud-seeding to induce rainfall, though international scientists say there has never been proof that such methods produce results.

China's huge land mass means drought can occur in one region while others have record-breaking temperatures and severe storms that can cause floods. A massive sandstorm earlier this week covered Beijing and other cities in northern China in a layer of sand and grit.

Since late 2009, mountainous Yunnan and its neighboring provinces have received little rainfall, causing crop and livestock losses worth $3.5 billion, Xinhua said.

Neighboring Guizhou province has been hit with its worst drought in 80 years, while in Guangxi it is the worst in 50 years, according to a report posted on the National Flood Control and Drought relief Web site.

Image: Dry bed of reservoir
A girl plays on the dried bed of a reservoir in China's Guizhou province on Monday.
In Guangxi, 1,100 schools were closed in the towns of Hechi and Baise this week, affecting nearly 190,000 students and teachers, according to Xinhua.

"We're sent out teams to dig and drill for wells this week in regions that have been hardest hit in the province," said an official who answered the phone at the Guangxi Land Resources Bureau.

In Guangxi, where sugar cane crops have perished and white sugar production is expected to decline this year, 67 producers have been forced to shut down, nearly double the number during the same period last year, Xinhua reported.

Military personnel have also been deployed to the disaster areas to transport water from Zhejiang in the east to Guizhou and Yunnan, according to state broadcaster China Central Television.

CCTV showed footage on its Thursday noon newscast of soldiers unloading bottled drinking water from military trucks at a village in Yunnan.

Farther south, the severe drought has dropped the Mekong River to its lowest level in nearly 20 years after an early end to the 2009 wet season and low rainfall during the monsoons, according to documents drafted by the Mekong River Commission.

The Mekong, which originates in the Tibetan Plateau and flows to southeast Asia through Yunnan, is the lifeblood for 65 million people in six countries — Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam.

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