By David Stanway
SHANGHAI (Reuters) -China warned that severe drought conditions along the Yangtze river could last well into September as local governments race to maintain power and find fresh water to irrigate crops ahead of the autumn harvest.
Beijing has warned of the increasing risk of extreme weather in China as a result of climate change, and heavy rainfall continues to take its toll in other parts of the country. Flooding in the western Chinese province of Qinghai killed 16 people, state media reported on Thursday, with an additional 36 missing.
The Ministry of Finance said on Thursday that it would make 420 million yuan ($61.83 million) of emergency funds available to help local governments provide food and drought relief.
A severe heatwave across the basin of China's longest river, the Yangtze, caused by a large- than-usual Western Pacific subtropical high, has now lasted more than two months, slashing hydropower supplies and parching large expanses of arable land. The river supports about a third of the country's population.
The sprawling southwestern region of Chongqing, where most of the Yangtze's Three Gorges reservoir is located, is scrambling to secure power from other parts of the country as supplies to industry are rationed, state media reported.
China's State Grid also promised to do its utmost to dispatch power to neighbouring Sichuan province, which normally supplies large amounts of surplus hydroelectricity to the east but is now imposing strict consumption controls.
Firms with operations in Sichuan, including CATL, the world's largest battery maker, and Japan's Toyota, have suspended production in the province as a result of the restrictions, according to media reports.
Normal water flows in the region could still be months away, with rainfall expected to remain low until the end of this month and beyond, said Liu Zhiyu, an official at the Ministry of Water Resources, speaking at a briefing on Wednesday.
"It is expected that in September, water inflows in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze will still be low, and the drought in Anhui, Hubei, Hunan and Jiangxi could develop further," Liu warned, referring to four major provinces on the middle reaches of the river.
Rainfall in the Yangtze basin has been around 45% lower than normal since July, and high temperatures are likely to persist for at least another week, official forecasts said.
Authorities in the region also warned that temperatures would continue to exceed 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) on Thursday, with parts of Chongqing set to go beyond 44 degrees, putting further pressure on power supplies amid surging air conditioner use.
Controlling water resources is seen as a crucial part of government in China as it tries to guarantee food supplies and secure another bumper harvest.
Rice and other autumn crops were now at a "critical period" when it comes to irrigation, warned Liu Weiping, Vice-Minister of Water Resources, at the Wednesday briefing.
He said around 820,000 hectares (2 million acres) of arable land from Sichuan in the southwest to central China's Anhui have suffered damage, affecting 830,000 people as well as 160,000 head of livestock.
Water levels on the main trunk of the Yangtze and the vital flood basin lakes of Dongting and Poyang are now at least 4.85 metres (16 feet) shallower than normal, and the lowest on record for the period, officials said.
The Yangtze's maritime safety bureau has issued several warnings about low water levels, ordering vessels to reduce their load when passing through shallower parts of the river.
The drought has also highlighted the role played by the cascade of giant hydropower projects in regulating flows on the Yangtze.
Giant upstream reservoirs are now opening their gates to replenish storage levels at the Three Gorges Dam, which will which will release 830 million cubic metres downstream over the coming days.
($1 = 6.7930 yuan)
(Reporting by David Stanway in Shanghai and Muyu Xu in Singapore; Editing by Michael Perry and Gerry Doyle)