China's longest river at lowest in 142 years

BEIJING Thu Jan 17, 2008 2:28am GMT

BEIJING Jan 17 (Reuters) - China's longest river, the Yangtze, is suffering from a severe drought this year with water levels in some areas falling to the lowest in 142 years, state media said on Thursday.

China is suffering its worst drought in a decade, which has left millions of people short of drinking water and has shrunk reservoirs and rivers.

Hardest hit are large swathes of the usually humid south, where water levels on several major rivers have plunged to historic lows in recent months.

On Jan. 8, the Yangtze water level at Hankou plunged to 13.98 metres (46 ft), the lowest since records began in 1866, the China Daily said on Thursday, quoting the Wuhan-based Changjiang Times.

"This year's drought is rare," Li Changmin, a farmer from central Hubei province, was quoted as saying. "Just days ago, I saw ship after ship running aground. I have never seen that before."

Since October, more than 40 ships have run aground in the main course of the Yangtze, the world's third longest river which stretches 6,300 km (3,900 miles) from west to east, the traditional dividing line between north and south China.

This year's dry season came a month earlier than usual and water levels fell sooner than expected, an official was quoted as saying.

"Also, large amounts of water were stored at the Three Gorges Dam last month, which caused the flow volume in the river to fall 50 percent. But the Yangtze River Water Resource Commission said the drought has nothing to do with the dam," the China Daily said.

The Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest hydroelectric project, is an engineering feat that seeks to tame the Yangtze.

Backers say the dam will end devastating floods downstream and generate clean electricity. Critics call it a reckless folly that has brought wrenching dislocation for many people.

Drought and floods are perennial problems in China but meteorologists have complained about the increased extreme weather, pointing to global climate change as a culprit.

(Reporting by Nick Macfie; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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