By Chris Buckley
LAKE HONGHU, China (Reuters) - Wang Guzhen and Xiao Gongguo count the cost of central China's drought with each push needed to heave their fishing boat through mud to shrinking Lake Honghu, surrounded by drying flats strewn with grounded boats.
The months-long drought parching middle and lower parts of the Yangtze River basin is the latest reminder of the risks that China's limited and heavily used water sources pose for the world's second-biggest economy.
Even before this drought, smaller lakes around Lake Honghu were disappearing, taken over for fields and fish farms.
Water from the Yangtze will be diverted to Beijing and other thirsty northern cities, but the Danjiangkou Dam that will deliver that water in coming years along the vast South-North Water Transfer Project is at its lowest for over a decade.
Victims of the latest dry spell also range from the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest hydropower project, to millions of poor farmers like Wang and Xiao, an elderly couple.
"I'm 70 and it's never been this bad," Xiao, a browned and balding man, said of the 348-sq-km (134-sq-mile) lake in central Hubei province. "You can walk across and it only comes up to your knees."
The lake has shrunk to about 207 sq km of water and is mostly no deeper than 30 cm or so, according to the China News Service -- at a time of year when residents said the water should be up to their chins.
"We used to always worry about floods, not droughts," said Xiao. "Not ones as bad as this."
That sentiment is echoed by many residents on the middle and eastern stretches of the Yangtze, which is China's biggest river and an the artery feeding much of China's farming and industrial heartlands.
Officials have said those parts are enduring their worst drought in 50 years, and rainfall has shrunk by 40 to 60 percent of normal.
Around Lake Honghu, thousands of farmers risk losing more crops, fish farms, and even drinking water if big rains fail to arrive soon.
Many rice fields in the surrounding countryside are yellow or barren. Farmers use scarce water for keeping alive fewer fields or for the ponds used to raise lucrative fish, crab and shrimp. Dry lotus ponds with wilted plants dot the landscape.
In other areas near the Yangtze, there is still enough water to sustain swathes of green rice stalks. China's economy is big enough to absorb this drought without slowing overall growth.
But experts said the tenacious dry-spell has bigger lessons.
After it passes, there are sure to be new floods and new droughts, and China's economy will increasingly bump up against the country's limited and unevenly spread water sources.
"A single drought this year won't lead to the collapse of China's economy but this will have an impact, one that shows the threat that China faces from water stress," said Xia Jun, a hydrologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.
China has six percent of the globe's fresh water resources but a fifth of the world's population. Global warming could stoke pressures, said Xia and other experts.
"There have been even worse droughts before, but now these episodes can be increasingly serious, because economic development is bringing increasing pressure on water resources, and the effects of disaster spread out wider and are felt in more ways," said Xia.
WHERE DID MY LAKE GO?
The long-standing strains on China's water are in plain view from Pi Xiaozhen's doorstep on edge of the now-extinct Lake Wanghu, which lay inland from the much bigger Lake Honghu.
She and her husband, Yong Houying, grow rice and raise crabs where the Wanghu once rose and fell with rains, until it was drained and reclaimed two decades ago for farmland, they said, like hundreds of other smaller lakes along the Yangtze basin.
"Wanghu Village here used to be named after the lake and the landlord who controlled it. But now the water has disappeared. It was turned into fields and fish farms," said Pi, a small, squat woman in her fifties.
On Chinese maps, lakes and smaller waterways that have disappeared with accelerating urbanization and development remain identified as patches of bright blue, markers of a time when the country's water supplies were more abundant.
About 1,000 of China's 3,000 natural lakes have disappeared in the past 50 years, China's official Xinhua news agency reported this week.
"This is the story all around here. None of those lakes on the map is really there," said Yin Paiqing, a 65-year-old worker at fish farms that now stand where he said the 13-sq-km Lake Lihu survived until a decade or so ago, a few dozen kilometers from Lake Honghu.
"When I started working here 40 years ago, this was a wild lake with wild ducks and geese and all kinds of birds. They've all gone," Yin said as he fed handfuls of weed to hungry crabs.
The accelerated extinction of such lakes in recent decades has deprived areas along the Yangtze of a natural buffer against drought and flood, said Liu Changming, a prominent water expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
After excluding heavily polluted water and other limits on tapping lakes and rivers, China has about 600 cubic meters of usable fresh water per year for each citizen, and already uses up three quarters of that, according to a study last year by the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research.
There is also the heavy industrial and agricultural pollution that makes many of China's waterways unfit to drink, sometimes even touch.
In 2009, more than a quarter of the length of China's main rivers and lakes was fit only for irrigation, or not even fit enough for that, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection.
Pi and Yong and many other farmers across the Lake Honghu district also said they were weighing the expense of buying pumps to tap underground water -- if they hadn't already done so -- a rare investment until this year's drought.
Not all can afford it.
Clearing mud from dry channel to get water for her family, Zhou Shouyin said she could not afford the 2,000 yuan ($310) or so for a pump to draw underground water for home use, even drinking, if money for bottled water runs out.
"Look at this drought. Just a trickle of water. This is all the water we have," Zhou said as she scooped handfuls of mud from a drying creek bed to allow brown water to collect.
THE HUMAN ELEMENT
Some farmers around Lake Honghu close to creeks and canals with some water could pump enough to keep raising rice with oxen and wood-and-metal ploughs, keeping fields alive, if not lush.
But in other, hard-up villages, farmers said damage from the drought was magnified by dilapidated irrigation, which left water channels and sluice gates crumbling or filled with mud.
"The government and villagers haven't invested enough, so there are places where there's enough water but there's no way to share it around," said Ouyang Jinghuang, a farmer from Longkan Village.
The government has increased spending on rural irrigation and water management, and it has promised much more this year.
But farmers were too mobile with migrant work or busy with their own ventures to stay with the collective labor once used to maintain village irrigation, said Ouyang, the farmer.
"Everyone acts the same. I take care of what's mine, but I don't take care of yours," he said, while fellow farmers stood around and nodded agreement. ($1 = 6.483 renminbi)
(Additional reporting by David Gray; Editing by Nick Macfie)