Ships stranded as drought lowers mighty Yangtze river

Shipping along Yangtze River, one of China's most vital waterways, has been stopped in places to prevent ships being grounded in low water during the worst drought in a decade.

Officials of the Yangtze River Waterway Bureau said yesterday they closed the section from the major inland port of Wuhan to Yueyang, 115 miles upriver.

It was unclear how many ships could be affected by the delays or how long they might last. Photographs in recent days have shown lines of barges and ships lined up along the river, waiting to move up or downstream.

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State media reported that more than 60 per cent of goods transported on inland rivers in China travel through the Yangtze, with shipping volume at 1.33 billion tonnes in 2009.

"The water level is much lower than in recent years," said an official at the waterway bureau.

Dredging has kept the river mostly navigable up to Wuhan, though the width of the area that ships can pass through has narrowed to about half its usual 1,000ft, the spokesman said.

"Ships have to be more careful as they travel through. Ships, just like truckers, often will overload their vessels to make more profits, but they can't do that this year," he added.

Much of central, northern and south-western China have been parched by what state media are calling the worst drought in at least ten years, ruining crops and causing severe water shortages for millions living in the region.

The lack of rainfall and damage to vegetation, combined with widespread desertification further north, has worsened the impact of spring dust storms that have swept through the country in recent weeks.

Last week, round-the-clock emergency teams were deployed along the river's middle reaches to help prevent accidents.

The operator of the Three Gorges dam, the world's largest hydroelectric facility, began discharging higher than usual amounts of water last week to help prevent levels from dropping further, but this appears to have made little difference.

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However, the 3,900-mile Yangtze is notorious for its summer flooding, and seasonal rains could bring some relief.

For now, though, fruit trees are withering upstream in Sichuan due to lack of rain, farmers say, and planting of rice and other crops in Hubei, near Wuhan, may be delayed.