China's worst heat wave in at least a decade appears to be easing after causing hundreds of deaths and severe losses from drought in central and southern China.
Worst hit have been Yangtze River Valley cities such as Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing and Nanchang, where high temperatures through most of July have ranged from 95 to 105 degrees, with high humidity.
Some coastal regions, where temperatures began declining late last week, had cooling rains Wednesday. But highs remained in the mid- to upper 90s in interior cities such as Wuhan.
The heat wave has been blamed for the deaths of many elderly people, most of them already weak or ill.
The official New China News Agency reported that in Hangzhou, the death rate has doubled since the heat wave began. There were 930 deaths in the city between July 1 and July 24, and officials said that heat was a factor in most of them.
Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi province, reported 290 deaths because of the heat. Nanjing has reported 83 deaths and Wuhan 22. A Shanghai public health official interviewed Wednesday by telephone said the death toll in that city has reached 49. In Anhui province, about 100 deaths have been blamed on the heat.
Hospitals and clinics in Shanghai, a city of 12 million people, have treated a million people for heat-related complaints, according to a report in a Shanghai newspaper.
There have been widespread reports of shortages of water for residential use. The China Daily reported that in Jiangsu province, more than a million people were "having trouble finding drinking water" and that 5 million people were "fighting to save their crops."
Chinese meteorologists believe that the hot spell can be traced to the same fundamental causes as the U.S. drought. They have cited the flaring of an especially strong series of sunspots since early May. They also give credence to the view that a "greenhouse effect"--a warming of the Earth's atmosphere caused by the release of carbon dioxide by industries--is affecting weather patterns.
The direct cause of the heat wave is an area of subtropical high pressure, which develops over southern China every year about this time. This year, it came 10 days early and moved about 300 miles north of its usual location, according to Fan Yongxiang, an official of China's Central Meteorological Bureau, quoted by the newspaper People's Daily.
Fan described the heat wave over central and south China as the worst since 1978. The heat brought severe drought to Anhui province and northern Jiangsu province. Wide expanses of central China have suffered less serious drought, he said.
The Ministry of Water Resources announced late last week that 28 million acres of farmland, about 10% of China's arable land, have been affected by the drought.
"The drought is hitting the country's main grain producers at the key season for crop growing," Yang Zhenhuai, head of the ministry, said at a press conference.
Yang said that 100 rivers in Anhui province have dried up, as have a million ponds and small water reservoirs in Hubei province.
Air conditioners, a luxury that only a small minority of the most prosperous Chinese can afford, have been sold out in Shanghai. Residents there and in other hard-hit cities have jammed movie theaters and department stores, which are among the few buildings that have air conditioning.
But even as heat and drought were striking extensive areas, other parts of China have been plagued with heavy rains and floods.
More than 15 million acres of farmland have been waterlogged, the newspaper reported. In the past few months, it said, about 500 people have drowned in floods.