Looking at the withered rice in the field, Luo Zhaohuai lets out a helpless sigh.
August should have been harvest season for the 53-year-old farmer in Chongqing Municipality in southwestern China.
However, the plot that has produced at least 600 kilograms of rice in past years is likely to yield nothing for him this year.
The culprit is the severe three-month drought that has plagued his hometown, located in the mountainous countryside of Qijiang County in Chongqing.
"Sweet potatoes also refuse to grow in the arid land," said Luo. "So we might have food shortages next year." Rice and sweet potatoes are the local people's staple food.
Like many of the villagers, Luo, a native of Fuxing Village, makes his living from the land. But his farm has had no rain since mid-May.
"For us who depend on heaven's blessings for food, this disaster is a deadly blow," he said.
"All we can do is to pray for rain," he added, wiping off the sweat flowing from his forehead.
Farmland has cracked, crops have withered, rivers have almost dried up and local people face a serious shortage of drinking water.
The effects of the most severe drought in 50 years are being felt across Chongqing, which has a population of more than 31 million.
Among the hardest-hit areas is Qijiang County, around 50 kilometres from the city proper of Chongqing Municipality. The temperature in the county reached a record 44.5 C last Wednesday.
At least 7.7 million people have suffered from the severe shortage of drinking water in the municipality, not to mention the area's 7.2 million cattle.
"This is the worst drought to hit Chongqing in 50 years," said He Lingyun, director of Chongqing's disaster relief office. "Two-thirds of local rivers and lakes have dried up and more than 200 reservoirs are stagnant."
A local taxi driver told China Daily that floods have been an annual feature of the sections of the Yangtze River that run through Chongqing and the local Jialing River in August, but this time it is the spectre of drought which is looming large.
What concerns Luo and his fellow villagers most nowadays is how to find water to drink.
The village well has dried up and now even the dusty water at the bottom has been scooped out. "We have to walk thirty or forty minutes to fetch two buckets of water," he said.
With the sweltering weather, taking a bath has become a distant dream for Luo and his fellow villagers.
"All our families share the same water to wash our faces," said 54-year-old villager Shao Shihuai.
In the jar containing the family's drinking water, lies only a little liquid. "Maybe it's only enough for some goldfish," she joked.
Two cows standing in Shao's courtyard breathed deeply under the scorching sun, but there was not enough water for them to quench their thirst.
"People are living with a severe shortage of drinking water, let alone the cattle," said Shao. "My son walks 20 minutes to fetch water from a pond 2 kilometres away to feed the cattle, but it's not enough for them."
In the worst conditions, according to the woman, her family even drink water from the pond after letting it settle for a few hours.
"It's often very hot in summer here with temperatures reaching around 40 C, but we've never had to go without rain for such a long time before," she added.
To help alleviate the drinking water shortage, the local government has helped tap wells to bring up underground water in some villages.
Meanwhile, it has also sent wagons carrying water to remote mountainous areas in need of water. Shao's village, which is 30 kilometers from Qijiang County, is among those which have received emergency supplies.
When the wagon carrying drinking water arrived at the village last Thursday, villagers flocked with buckets to carry water to their homes.
"We really feel grateful for the government's care. Although the supply is limited, it's enough for drinking and cooking," said Shao.
According to village head Luo Yuliang, a special team in charge of delivering water has been organized by the county government to send water to his village twice a day since a week ago, around 9 tons per day.
Farmers have suffered worst from the continual drought. Besides the shortage of drinking water, more than 1.3 million hectares of cropland have been severely affected.
"All of the vegetables we plant, such as potatoes or fresh beans, have withered, so we can't even put leaf vegetables on the dinner table," said Shao.
The villagers hope the local government will help build a 'catch' basin in the village to solve the drinking water shortage in future droughts.
"Who knows how long the dryness will last and when the next drought will come?" said 53-year-old Luo Zhaohuai.
Forest fire a threat
The extreme heat and drought have also put mountain forests in the municipality at risk as dry leaves on the ground increase the danger of forest fires.
At least eighty fires have been caused by the scorching sun since August 1, according to the municipality's disaster relief office.
"We were told to be vigilant about possible fires in nearby forests to avoid losses for our villagers," said village head Luo Yuliang.
Last Thursday, two mountain forest fires flared up in Sanjiang Town of the county, which is close to Luo's village. Both are thought to have been caused by the scorching sun.
"While keeping alert for possible fires, we also imposed a ban on local people entering the mountain forests," said Ding Shili, a press official from the township government.
In urban areas, power use has soared as families, shopping malls and hotels turn up their power-guzzling air-conditioning, competing with factories for power supply.
However, because of low water levels in the reservoirs caused by the drought, local hydroelectric power plants with a generating capacity of 12 million kilowatts have had to suspend operations. What's even worse, other power stations frequently break down because of the soaring demand.
"There is a gap of more than 1 million kilowatts of electricity between supply and demand," an official from the municipality's power supply bureau was quoted as saying by local media.
(China Daily August 21, 2006)