XINZHOU, China — As deputy Communist Party secretary of the Yangtze River management station in Xinzhou, Ba Qiansheng is supposed to keep a close eye on rising waters. A sign across the street from his office lists flood-warning levels, and large red characters say that swimming is prohibited.
But these days, the idea of a flood seems ludicrous. On one side of the giant sluice gate at Xinzhou, the water is shallow; on the other side, there's almost no water at all. The channel that is supposed to connect with the Yangtze is filled with foot-deep cracks baking in the sun where the river used to be.
"It's the lowest it's been in 70 years," Ba said.
Asked why that would be, Ba shifted nervously for a moment. "We don't yet know the reason," Ba said.
Pushed for an answer, Ba said there's been no rain and then, with considerable hesitation added that, "It's possible that the dam is part of the reason."
The "dam" is the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric project in the world, which sits to the west of this town in southern China's Hubei Province. Designed to generate electricity and tame the Yangtze, the longest river in Asia, the controversial dam cost at least $23 billion. It was seen as a testament to the dramatic power of China's state planning when it was finished in 2006.
Now that legacy is being chipped away as the worst drought in at least half a century unfolds across the Yangtze River region.
The conditions haven't led to any large public challenges to the Chinese government in Beijing — every farmer interviewed in Hubei blamed only the lack of rain — and panic has not yet set in. But worries about how bad things could get are growing, and many observers wonder whether the dam's reservoir is, at the least, making a difficult situation worse.
The numbers released through state media are not reassuring.
The government says that the least rainfall in at least 50 years has affected some 3.2 million-plus acres of farmland in seven provinces. In five provinces, 4.2 million people are having trouble finding drinking water. In one province, Hunan, which borders Hubei, rain hasn't been so scarce since 1910, a provincial official told the state Xinhua newswire.
"This is the worst I've ever seen," said Luo Baoqing, a 70-year-old farmer in Hubei who said that if the rains don't come soon, he won't plant rice this season. "Before when there were droughts we could dig a well, but we've tried drilling two wells this year and there's no water."
State media ran a report this month insisting that rice crops will be fine overall. But it also acknowledged that more than 494,000 acres of rice paddies have been affected in Hubei alone, citing the Ministry of Agriculture.
Xinhua quoted specialists saying the dam had "very little" impact on regional climate conditions and that there is "no evidence that the drought was caused by the dam."
Others disagree. Fan Xiao, a senior engineer with a provincial geological survey team in the area, said that in addition to the lack of rain, the drought conditions are "related to the Three Gorges Dam."
Chinese officials pushed for water levels to hit a height of 574 feet at the dam in 2008 and 2009 — seeking maximum power generation capacity — and finally succeeded last October. That campaign, Fan said, came "at the cost of the downstream water supply."
The areas regularly cited as being hardest hit by the drought all sit downriver from the dam.
"The government has done a lot of propaganda about the Three Gorges Dams; of course they don't want to talk about the negative effects now," said Fan, who is based in neighboring Sichuan Province. "The hearings held before the dam was built were not held in a scientific way — it was a political project."
In a surprising turn, China's state council recently admitted that the dam faces problems that must be "urgently resolved" with "ecological protection and geological disaster prevention."
That public statement created an uncomfortable dilemma — the government either could keep the status quo and preserve the dam's power production, or it could increase the amount of water being released.
With reports of shipping barges having trouble navigating some spots of the Yangtze, and bone-dry rice fields in a nation already concerned about food prices, Chinese leaders decided to release more water from the reservoir.
Although hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of water are leaving the dam every second, the scenes in Hubei suggest the government's challenges are far from over.
Looking at the pond he uses to harvest lotus roots, Li Caishou said that as it stands his haul will be at least 30 percent below last year.
Couldn't he just pump more water from the nearby Zhangdu Lake, which is linked to Ba Qiansheng's sluice gate?
Li said that a visitor should go take a look for himself. What was once the lake's shoreline is now just a flat expanse of mud, yawning into the distance before reaching water.
About 45 miles to the northwest, farmers in villages stretching around the city of Xiaogan said they're faced with a bitter choice between planting rice and getting much smaller harvests or forsaking this year's rice crop all together. Many said they've planted cotton or vegetables instead.
The men, their skin tough from the sun, said that local reservoirs are all but useless now.
"The reservoir is so low that after they opened it up for us, there wasn't enough water in there to flow out," said Luo Jinru, 49, a rice farmer trudging down to a mostly dry creek to see if he could pump water from what remained. "We have a well for farming water, but it's dry too."
Sun Chufeng was plopping along behind a water buffalo, which snorted and strained as it dragged a metal blade through a thick patch of mud he was trying to turn into rice paddy. Asked how the planting season had gone, Sun, 72, paused to wave his hand at the dry fields all around him — "everything you see is usually under water."
Sun expects his crops to drop by half or more this year.
"There's no water," said Sun, who got the small amount he has to work with by pumping from a canal that has been withering away. "It has all dried up."
A few minutes later, the old farmer was back to trudging through the only wet patch of land he had, and hoping for rain.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011