Best of our wild blogs: 29 May 11

The Synaptid sea cucumber in Semakau is...
from Urban Forest

Shark on Semakau!
from wild shores of singapore

Pulau Semakau (28 May 2011)
from Project Driftnet Singapore and sgbeachbum

Observation Notes on the Variability of Two Blues
from Butterflies of Singapore

Nesting Grey Herons: 10. Sexual assault
from Bird Ecology Study Group

110527 Venus Drive
from Singapore Nature

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Free the dolphins

Capture practices are cruel, says Ric O'Barry
Sandra Davie Straits Times 29 May 11;

Free the dolphins.

That is the appeal which Mr Ric O'Barry, who shot to fame with his film on the capture and killing of the marine mammal in Japan, is making to Resorts World Sentosa.

RWS plans to showcase 25 wild-caught dolphins as one of the attractions at its oceanarium slated to open by the year end.

In a letter sent last Friday to the integrated resort's chief executive Tan Hee Teck, Mr O'Barry, who works for United States-based environmental group Earth Island Institute, has urged him to show Singaporeans RWS is a 'true steward of the environment' and 'a responsible company sensitive to the harm captivity inflicts on dolphins'.

The marine mammal specialist, 72, has also offered his help to rehabilitate and release the dolphins back to the wild, in the Solomon Islands, off Papua New Guinea.

'Your cooperation would ensure that these dolphins (are) returned to their natural habitat where they can thrive, as opposed to keeping them in captivity, separated from their original home range and their pod,' he wrote, adding that most Singaporeans would object to keeping dolphins in captivity if they knew the capture practices.

The activist, who investigated the dolphin hunts in the Solomon Islands for a TV documentary last year, said they are cruel.

'It is not that much different from what happens in Taiji, Japan. The dolphins are corralled into a cove by the villagers. The healthy ones are caught to be sold to aquariums but the others are speared, clubbed and stabbed to death.'

Dolphin-hunting nations such as Japan have defended the practice as being centuries-old. Taiji officials have said that the Japanese government allows about 19,000 dolphins to be killed each year and Taiji hunts about 2,000 a year.

The Japanese have also asked Western nations to understand and respect different food cultures.

RWS has never revealed how much it paid for the 27 bottlenose dolphins bought from Canadian dolphin trader Chris Porter in 2008 and 2009.

The plan to exhibit them along with whale sharks had drawn flak from environmental groups and animal lovers here. In May 2009, RWS scrapped the plan to exhibit whale sharks, saying it might not be able to care for the animals which can grow to more than 12m and weigh 15 tonnes.

Nine of the 27 dolphins had been sent to a holding facility in Langkawi, Malaysia, while the rest were housed in Ocean Park Adventure in Subic Bay in the Philippines.

Two dolphins died in Langkawi last October from a bacterial infection arising from contact with contaminated soil and surface waters. A few months later, the remaining seven were sent to the Philippines.

Local group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres), which sent a team to Langkawi, noted that the sea pens were too small, rusty and in a high boat traffic area which would have been stressful to the dolphins.

RWS said the marine mammals were moved to the Philippines not because of the poor water quality in Langkawi but to 'continue integrating the dolphins into social groupings'.

It added that it will proceed with its plan to have a dolphin exhibition in its oceanarium. The 8ha Marine Life Park was part of its proposal when it won the bid in 2006 to build the Sentosa integrated resort.

Last Friday, in response to another campaign launched by Acres to free the dolphins, Mr Tan said the company was following international rules on the treatment of marine animals.

Speaking on the sidelines of the official opening of RWS' Universal Studios, he added that the dolphins are 'very healthy' and expected to be brought here in the next 12 months.

RWS later issued a statement, saying the team was providing the 'very best care' to the dolphins, including a superior diet and veterinary attention. It added that it was committed to marine research, conservation and education.

Asked to respond to Mr O'Barry's appeal, an RWS spokesman said yesterday his CEO will do so after he has seen the letter.

Contacted by The Sunday Times in Miami, Mr O'Barry said it was ironic that RWS should talk about conservation and education.

'The act of catching and confining these animals in concrete tanks and training them to become something they are not, cannot possibly contribute towards constructive education on marine life and environmental issues.'

Mr O'Barry, who is aware of RWS' record earnings, hopes it would take up his offer. Last quarter, RWS' pre-tax profits of $537.9 million trumped its competitor Marina Bay Sands' performance of US$284.5 million (S$350 million).

'If Resorts World frees the dolphins, not only will it show good corporate citizenship, it will also be a massive windfall of good publicity for them.'

He also appealed to Singaporeans to support his cause and do their bit to persuade RWS to free the dolphins. 'I have always admired Singapore from afar, for being this little island nation that does amazing things.

'Resorts World and Singapore can set an example here for being true stewards of the environment and helping to protect and preserve the different species that make our planet a beautiful, rich place.'

In Sentosa, dolphins are a draw at another attraction called Underwater World, which is run by Haw Par Corporation.

'Flipper' trainer seeks to make amends for past
Straits Times 29 May 11;

In the 1960s, Mr Ric O'Barry helped spark a worldwide fascination for dolphins by training five to play Flipper on TV.

The series, about a bottlenose dolphin which kept company with a Florida park ranger and his kids, made people want to reach out and touch these seemingly sociable creatures.

Marine parks sprang up to cash in on that.

But he had a change of heart when Kathy, one of the dolphins which played Flipper, died.

'Kathy looked me right in the eye,' he said. 'Then she took a breath, and never took another one. She sank to the bottom of the tank,' he recalled, adding that he was quite certain that her death was a suicide.

He explained: 'Every breath a dolphin takes is a conscious effort, so they can decide not to take the next breath. That's what I mean by suicide.'

It was just before Earth Day, 1970. The next day, he found himself in jail for trying to free a dolphin.

'I completely lost it,' he admitted in a phone interview with The Sunday Times. He went on to set up the Dolphin Project to free captive dolphins and educate people about their plight.

For years, he had been trying to get the media to focus attention on what happened to the dolphins in Taiji, Japan. He managed to do that in 2009, when he worked with film-maker Louie Psihoyos.

The Cove went on to win Best Documentary at the Oscars.

In the documentary on the annual hunt of wild dolphins in Taiji, fishermen in boats bang pipes underwater. Fleeing this sound, the dolphins are corralled into a secluded cove.

The healthy ones are caught to be sold to aquariums but the others are speared, clubbed and stabbed to death, as recorded in the documentary, portions of which were shot secretly.

Mr O'Barry said the dolphin hunts in the Solomon Islands are no different. The residents use stones to create a sound that enables the hunters to drive the dolphins into an inlet.

'The dolphins are ripped from their natural environment, separated from their families and pod mates, held in nets, transported in trucks, hoisted into cargo planes and flown to distant locations. Is it any wonder that many die in the process?'

Survivors are 'condemned to a life in a concrete tank, listening to the hum of the filtration system and the screams of the audience'.

While wild dolphins can live for 60 years, in captivity they often die prematurely. Captive ones routinely suffer from ulcers, he said, adding that they frequently go blind and have skin problems.

Many also succumb to stress-related conditions like pneumonia, as well as self-inflicted injuries or those caused by accidents or confrontations with other confined dolphins.

Mr O'Barry, who works with US-based environmental group Earth Island Institute, said he will never give up the fight to free dolphins in captivity.

'It's my way of trying to right the wrong I committed in helping to boost the captivity industry through the Flipper series.'

Sandra Davie

For more on the issue see ACRES "Save the World's Saddest Dolphins" facebook page

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Rare earth 'gold rush' extracts a price

John Huxley The Sydney Morning Herald 29 May 11;
Not all are winners in the race to produce high-tech metals, writes John Huxley.

Riot squad teams were on alert and rush-hour traffic was brought to a standstill in Kuala Lumpur late last week as hundreds of demonstrators descended on the Australian high commission.

The crowd chanted, waved placards, wore black T-shirts bearing slogans such as "Save Malaysia", "No Radiation", "Go back to Australia" and, most pertinently, "Put the Planet before the Earths".

Rare earths, that is; elements crucial to the manufacture of high-tech products from iPods to eco-friendly light globes, wind turbines to weaponry, smartphones to electric cars.

They were protesting against plans by the Sydney company Lynas Corporation to process rare earths mined at Mount Weld, in Western Australia, at a new plant near Kuantan, in Pahang state on Malaysia's east coast.

In an eerie echo of the debate over the processing of asylum seekers in Malaysia, MP Fuziah Salleh accused Lynas of adopting double standards.

"Lynas isn't able to comply [with environmental standards] in Australia," she said. "It's taking advantage of loopholes in Malaysian laws."

The company denies the claims.

It said the location of the $230 million plant had nothing to do with operating standards. Labour costs were a factor, but Malaysia was chosen primarily for its local know-how, industrial infrastructure, energy supplies and port facilities.

"The plant meets all safety and environmental standards for Malaysia as well as Australian and international standards." Indeed, Lynas says the project passed licensing requirements for Australia and China.

The project - due to start production later this year from stockpiled Mount Weld ore - is being watched carefully, for it is the first move in a worldwide drive to increase supplies of rare earths.

Elsewhere, production is expected to resume soon in the United States, after being abandoned in 2002, and be increased in countries such as India, Vietnam, Russia and China, the world's biggest supplier.

Michel Nestour, a minerals specialist for the professional services firm Ernst & Young, recently listed more than 20 other prospects, including four in Australia, which has about 1.4 per cent of world reserves. As he says, "The rare earths race is on."

For good reason. Sales of rare earths have quadrupled since 2003, as their unique properties, such as being magnetic and phosphorescent, are sought to underpin key social trends and realise sustainable, clean-tech objectives, says Lynas.

Such is their crucial role in supporting future energy-efficiency initiatives, reducing greenhouse gases and speeding the miniaturisation of digital technology that prices for this "21st-century gold" have sky-rocketed.

Price movements vary. But in seven years the price of a kilogram of dysprosium oxide, used in iPods and data storage applications, wind turbines and hybrid vehicles, has risen from $US14.33 to $US700.

Annual sales of rare earths remain small, about $2 billion this year, but a supply squeeze has long been predicted by experts, concerned by political and public ignorance about their significance.

As Byron King, an online metals watcher, explained, the world is addicted as much to the earths as to oil. "None of these elements is famous like gold or silver. None is shipped in giant ore freighters. But without them, much of modern economy will just plain shut down."

Exaggeration? Perhaps. But there is another compelling, strategic reason why "Western nations" are anxious to secure supplies of elements that are generally not radioactive, but are found in association with others that are.

Remarkably, China has secured more than 95 per cent of the market. Indeed, it is reportedly the only source of dysprosium, which appropriately takes its name from the Latin dysprositos, meaning "hard to get at".

A recent report by the American Security Project think-tank warned that, by way of rare earths, the US was "completely reliant on China for production of some of the [Pentagon's] most powerful weapons".

Though China denies exploiting its market position, it has created stockpiles, is seeking overseas involvement in companies such as Lynas and operates an export quota system, comparable to that used by the OPEC oil cartel.

Little wonder, then, that the rest of the planet feels vulnerable, frets increasingly about its dependence on a monopoly supplier for products which, as many commentators point out, are rare in name, not in nature.

In fact, though it dominates the world market, both as a supplier and as a consumer, China has only about 30 per cent of estimated world reserves of the 17 different rare earths identified by the US Geological Survey.

As The Economist magazine put it, though abundant in the Earth's crust, extracting earths individually from a "cocktail" of earths within ores, sands and clays is - at any price - "a difficult, time-consuming, costly and dirty business".

Until recently, at least, China's pre-eminence in the business has been built on cheap labour and, according to critics, minimal health, safety and environmental precautions.

China has now moved to impose stricter standards, and cracked down on illegal mining and smuggling, but the social, health and environmental legacy of existing projects is horrific.

Former Herald journalist Allison Jackson, who works for Agence France-Presse in Beijing, recently visited the epicentre of world rare earth production near the Inner Mongolian city of Baotou.

Once farmland, it is now a disaster area, dotted with toxic waste dumps and reservoirs of radioactive water. "People are suffering severely," said the National Business Daily, pointing to a rise in cancer-related deaths.

It is a nightmarish scenario familiar to Malaysian opponents of the Lynas project, who fear there could be a repetition of the health problems linked to a Japanese rare earths refinery at Bukit Merah, in Perak state.

The plant closed in 1992 following claims it caused birth defects and leukaemia among local residents. According to one critic, it remains "one of Asia's largest radioactive waste clean-up sites".

Lynas remains confident of getting the go-ahead, but much will depend on the findings of an independent panel of nine experts, due to arrive in Kuala Lumpur tomorrow.

The Trade Minister, Mustapa Mohamed, insists the team, nominated by the International Atomic Energy Agency, will assess the plant's compliance with international safety standards and world's best practice.

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Sustainable coral nurseries ensure future of Philippine coral reefs

Mike BaƱos Sun Star 29 May 11;

MEDINA, Misamis Oriental -- Poverty in the Philippines is mainly responsible for making its coral reefs the most degraded in Southeast Asia and its fishery resources considered the most exploited in the world, despite its recognition as the "World's Center of Marine Biodiversity."

The Duka Bay Carbon Cycle Laboratory (CCL) aims to address this threat by using the very people who are responsible for the degradation of our corals reefs to rebuild them, says Ernesto F. Pelaez, team leader of a research group that has been developing a transplantable coral technology over the last eight years.

"The limited sources of planting materials remains to be the main constraint in undertaking massive and wide scale coral replanting," Pelaez said.

"Because of the abundance of planting materials made possible by our project, we are the first to use Large Coral Clones (LCC) for out-planting. We have developed a methodology to overcome this challenge and in fact are now planting third generation LCCs from our nurseries. The impact is similar to using large planting materials for fruit trees," he added.

Building on knowledge and experience gained from the previous Asia Pacific Silver Project Awardee "Concrete Substrates for Accelerated Coral Restoration," this newer initiative seeks to model a "carbon sequestration loop" using existing technology that is affordable, easily replicated and can address issues raised by the Okinawa Declaration on the Conservation and Restoration of Endangered Coral Reefs of the World.

This involves the construction of and installation of concrete substrates seeded with large coral clones (LCCs) that can restore, sustain and expand degraded coral reefs and their associated ecosystems and resources for local communities, fisheries and tourism.

It can also establish new coral reefs in barren coastal areas and previously established artificial reefs (ARs) where hard coral recruitment has not been satisfactory.

"Our nurseries are what make us different from previous coral transplantation technologies which source their planting materials from the wild," said Lemuel R. Alfeche, the team's resident marine biologist/researcher of the Puka Reef Divers Association.

"The large planting materials we harvest from our nurseries give us an exponentially growing source of corals which also enable the original source of the coral materials to regenerate," he added.

The project's carbon fixing mechanism is anchored on the coral polyp's ability to combine carbon dioxide (CO2) and calcium (Ca) in water to make calcium carbonate (CaCO3) or limestone which is stored in its shell.

This strategy, in time, could significantly absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

With massive placements of artificial reefs using concrete substrates with large coral clones (LCCs), a quantum reduction of carbon dioxide in the sea and air above it becomes quite a very intriguing possibility.

Such concrete substrates can easily be built and installed by fisherfolk in coastal villages with minimal training. These same people will act as stewards for their ARs which would stabilize, then eventually restore the maritime eco-system in their immediate vicinities. They will serve as guardians of their coastal zones from overfishing, oversee the development of their coastal neighborhoods, and look out for threats to the sustainability of their coral gardens, making them "virtual" marine protected areas (MPAs).

LCCs from nearby "clone nurseries" situated in MPAs will be the key to the long-term sustainability of the projects as the ARs expand and eventually become nurseries themselves to spur even further expansion.

With 17,500 kilometers of coastline, the potential to transform the Philippines' coral reefs into "rainforests of the sea" as a significant mitigating factor against global warming is mind boggling.

Compared to forest carbon sinks, carbon sequestration in ARs using LCCs have a geometric growth progression, are safe from fire and usual threats faced by land-based forests, with most threats addressable by human intervention, offer permanent/longer carbon sequestration, and are adaptable to sand dunes or barren stretches of seabed, and make it easy to restore degraded coral atolls/reefs.

In contrast, trees can only multiply arithmetically and face environment threats many of which cannot be mitigated by human intervention, and have a relatively short-span carbon sequestration period before they are cut down for lumber or fuel and the decay or burning releases carbon back into the air.

This project aims to make its technology and expertise with artificial reefs using concrete substrates with large coral clones available for the national integrated coastal management plan. It will endeavor to reduce human induced climate change by reducing greenhouse gases, and reduce immediate threats of declining water quality brought by land-use changes and pollution, and mass exploitation of fish biomass.

While it's true that coral reefs also face similar threats to their sustainability, particularly the increase in sea surface temperatures, decrease in carbonate levels and sea-level rise, caused by increasing anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere, whose combined effects stress coral reefs leading to severe bleaching and extensive coral mortality, these respond better to human interventions compared to land based forests.

"However, as of now we can only establish our coral nurseries in marine protected areas (MPA)," said Severo Eduardo M. Yap, PADI open water dive instructor and Pelaez's partner in the Duka Dive Shop, which is financing the research.

Yap supervised the delineation and zoning of the MPA in Duka Bay, which provided the haven within which to carry out the project free from the depredation of fishermen using illegal fishing methods. The three partners are co-authors of the local and international patent application on the establishment of coral nurseries.

Meantime, the team has developed a superior concrete structure to the original "acanthasia" called the "A-Leg Beam". The new design reduced by 90 percent the cost of each clone from the 88 clones, which could be accommodated in the giant, eight-legged acanthasia to the 16 clones of the much handier A-Leg Beam.

"The A-Leg Beam is a more dynamic design which allows us to orient it to any position and terrain. It can be placed on top of sandbars, degraded coral reefs, for instance, to initiate coral establishment," Alfeche said. "Its smaller frame also allows it to either restore a dead reef or establish a new one in a previously bare area, say the "Dive Experience" in the Palm Island Crescent in Dubai."

The team has documented 150 species of coral in Duka Bay so far, though they acknowledge they lack the time and resources to continue the census. The Philippines, recently recognized as the world's center of biodiversity, has approximately 300 coral species, 22 of which are hard tropical corals.

Funding for the construction of artificial reefs under this project can be sourced from Annex 1 countries and companies seeking to build up their carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol.

Although coral sequestration is not yet considered as carbon sinks under the present provisions of the Kyoto Protocol, the project team believes it is only a matter of time before they will be included due to the inherent advantages it offers over the approved methods using land based tree plantations.

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Climate Change and Marine Mammals: Winners and Losers

ScienceDaily 27 May 11;

Current hotspots of marine mammal diversity are concentrated in the temperate waters of the southern hemisphere, and the number of cetacean and pinniped species will likely remain highest in these areas in the coming 40 years, -- regardless of climate change. However, on the level of individual species the picture may be different: Whereas about half the species of marine mammals will experience some loss in their habitat, distributional ranges of the other half may increase by up to 40 percent.

This is the conclusion of a study recently published in the online scientific journal PLoS ONE and conducted by marine biologist Dr. Kristin Kaschner, research affiliate at the Institute of Biology I of the University of Freiburg, in collaboration with researchers from the USA, Canada, and Brazil.

The international team of ecologists produced predictions of patterns of global marine mammal biodiversity using a species distribution model which incorporated oceanographic data such as water depth, sea surface temperature, and sea ice concentration as well as information on marine mammal species occurrence. The researchers subsequently modeled and investigated the effects of global warming on individual species' distributions and biodiversity hotspots by the year 2050 based on an intermediate climate change scenario. They found current marine mammal biodiversity to be highest along the Pacific coasts of North America and Japan, north of New Zealand and in waters surrounding several Subantarctic islands.

Based on the simulation, overall the expected change in the distribution patterns of marine mammals by 2050 was relatively small, with the exception of Antarctic and Arctic waters where currently only relatively few species occur. In these polar regions, the model predicted local losses in native species of up to 80 percent while at the same time overall biodiversity could increase by more than an order of magnitude due to the invasion of temperate and subpolar species. Tropical waters will also be experience a loss in diversity, albeit one of less severity. However, the researchers stress that the results of the study probably underestimate impacts of climate change, since the model could not account for indirect effects such as changes in prey distribution or breeding habitat of polar species.

Cetaceans and pinnipeds play an important role in the marine food webs, and marine mammal biodiversity hotspots can thus be indicative of high levels of overall biodiversity. Prediction models such as the one used in this study may therefore help with the identification marine areas of high conservation concern.. One of the main targets of the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is to the establishment of a network of marine protected areas covering at least ten percent of the global ocean surface by the year 2020. With currently just over one percent being protected, however, the international community is still far from achieving this goal.

Journal Reference:

Kristin Kaschner, Derek P. Tittensor, Jonathan Ready, Tim Gerrodette, Boris Worm. Current and Future Patterns of Global Marine Mammal Biodiversity. PLoS ONE, 2011; 6 (5): e19653 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0019653

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China drought affects more than 34 million people

Robert Saiget Yahoo News 28 May 11;

BEIJING (AFP) – A debilitating drought along China's Yangtze river has affected more than 34 million people, leaving farmers and livestock without water and parching a major grain belt, the government said Saturday.

More than 4.23 million people are having difficulty finding adequate drinking supplies, while more than five million are in need of assistance to overcome the drought, the Civil Affairs Ministry said in a statement.

"The special characteristics of this drought disaster is that it has persisted a long time," the ministry said.

"Secondly the losses to the agricultural and breeding industries have been severe... while drinking water for people and livestock have been seriously impacted."

Rainfall levels from January to April in the drainage basin of the Yangtze, China's longest and most economically important river, have been up to 60 percent lower than average levels of the past 50 years, it said.

"Large areas of farmland have been severely parched and are cracking, making it impossible for early rice to take root," the ministry said.

The agricultural impact is likely to further alarm officials already trying to tame high prices, including grain prices which have been rising steadily on global markets in recent months.

So far the drought has led to direct economic losses amounting to 14.94 billion yuan ($2.29 billion), the ministry said.

Water levels in lakes and reservoirs mostly in the provinces of Jiangsu, Anhui, Jiangxi, Hubei and Hunan are close to historic lows, decimating fish farms, state press reports said.

Water levels in Dongting lake, China's second largest, were so low that experts issued warnings of a possible explosion of the lake's rat population, Xinhua news agency said.

The national flood and drought control authority has ordered the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest hydroelectric project, to increase its discharge of water to alleviate the regions downstream, the China Daily said.

"If the drought continues and there is no rainfall before June 10, the dam will lose the capacity to relieve the drought," the paper quoted Wang Hai, an official with the corporation that oversees the dam, as saying.

According to the state meteorological station, no rains are predicted in the region until June 2.

The Three Gorges Dam has already had to cut back on electrical production due to the drought, while shipping along the river below the dam has been hampered due to the low water levels, media reports said.

The State Grid, China's state-owned power distributor, reportedly said this week that 10 of its provincial-level power grids were suffering severe shortages due to the drought's impact on hydroelectric generation, including Shanghai and the heavily populated southwestern Chongqing region.

China could face a summer electricity shortage of 30 gigawatts -- the most severe power shortfall since 2004, the company said.

China's north has been suffering from a lack of rain for nearly 15 years -- largely attributed to global warming -- while the south, especially the Yangtze river basin, has been prone to flooding during the annual summer rainy season.

Just last summer, sustained torrential rainfall across the region caused widespread flooding and landslides leading to the deaths of more than 3,000 people, state press reported.

China's "Land Of Fish And Rice" Parched By Drought
Chris Buckley PlanetArk 31 May 11;

The drought gripping stretches of central and eastern China has dried Lake Honghu into an expanse of exposed mud, stranded boats and dying fish farms, threatening the livelihoods of residents in Hubei Province who call this their "land of fish and rice."

Dry spells and floods blight various parts of China nearly every year, and officials are prone to call each the worst in 50 years or longer.

But many residents around the lake said that was a fitting label for the months-long drought that has drastically shrunk the lake, the adjacent Yangtze River, and many other lakes and tributaries along the mighty river's course through farming and industrial heartlands.

"I've never, ever seen it this bad. Look at the rice. It's all going yellow and the stalks will die unless we get some rain soon," said Ouyang Jinghuang, a pepper-haired 66-year-old farmer tending rice paddies near Lake Honghu.

"We're all digging wells and buying our drinking water. Usually, we have so much water here that we worry about floods, not droughts."

The dry spell is a jarring reminder of how China, the world's second-biggest economy, relies on increasingly strained water resources to feed its people and power rapidly increasing numbers of hydro stations.

Those problems could deepen if rains fail to arrive soon.

"There's still water, but it's not enough to share around," said Gao Desheng, a farmer in his sixties who was taking a rest after plowing a field using an ox, the centuries-old farming method still favored here.

"Before, the sky would always send more than enough water. But this year, the sky has just stopped sending. It's as if we offended it."


Lake Honghu lies next to the Yangtze, separated from the river by a strip of land with dykes and sluice gates.

The lake's waters are usually up to 1.5 meters deep across much of its 348 sq km (134 sq mile) area at this time of year, said Pan Cheng'e, a sun-browned rice farmer and crab breeder who lives along its banks.

"Now where there's water, it's about 40 centimeters deep at most," he said. "The farmers are already hard-up, and if that dries up, well, this year will be a disaster."

The lake is dotted with hundreds of fishing and house boats stranded on mud by the receding waters. The remaining muddy water is also being pumped away to keep alive fish farms in ponds on nearby farms and marshland.

"Nearly all the fish have died already, and we're trying to keep alive the ones left," said Wu Zhaowei, a brawny man in his twenties who was resting on a stranded houseboat after a morning of dragging water to a fish-raising enclosure.

"Many people have already lost all their fish, and that's a lot of money."

Farmers said they would need generous rainfall in coming weeks, or the first of their two annual rice crops could wither and die, and more of the thousands of fish and crab farms could lose all their stock.

Millions of farmers in Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi and other provinces face similar threats of damaged or even lost rice crops.

Almost 35 million people across five provinces on the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze have been affected to different degrees by the drought, the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs said on Friday. That number includes 4.2 million who have difficulty getting drinkable water.

Direct economic losses are nearing 15 billion yuan ($2.3 billion), it said.

China's economy, the world's second largest, could probably absorb the crop losses so far with only a small bump in food inflation.

But the drought also threatens to cut into power production, since the Yangtze River and its tributaries feed the Three Gorges Dam, the world's biggest hydropower project, as well thousands of smaller hydro plants.

"The Yangtze River always has ups and downs, depending on what the heavens do," said Li Bin, a fisherman casting nets on the banks of the river.

"But I haven't seen it this low before, and it was even lower a few days ago before they let water out of the Three Gorges," said the 60-year-old.

He pointed to a spot on the river bank about two meters above where he was standing.

"That's about where it should be at this time of year, so we're going to need lots of rain to catch up. I don't see it coming soon."

(Editing by Ken Wills and Jonathan Thatcher)

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