LANZHOU, June 18 (Xinhua) -- Zhang Zhongyi delightedly removed the humid earth in his cropland, only to find, in despair, that the drizzle wet less than two centimeters underneath the arid land.
Zhang and his fellow villagers in Huining County, northwest China's Gansu Province, had expected Friday's rain to ease the perennial drought and bring to life at least some of their crops.
"But merely 4 millimeters of rainfall does little to ease the drought," said Zhang. "There's little hope for summer harvest, with all the wheat, beans and peas dying with thirst."
Even potatoes, the most drought-resistent crop, are hard to survive. "About 40 percent of our cropland is planted with potatoes, but only half of them sprouted," said Zhang.
Zhang's sesame crops were about half a meter tall this time last year, but now, even the tallest is just around 20 centimeters. "In the driest land, even weed does not grow."
The current drought has caused severe water shortages for 58,000 people and ruined 10,000 hectares of cropland, said Wu Haidong, head of the county's drought relief and flood prevention office.
Huining County, locked in the Loess Plateau, is one of the driest places in northwestern China. Local farmers traditionally rely on rainwater for irrigation, though rain is extremely rare even in the rainy season from July to September.
An official with the local weather bureau said this year's drought is "worse than ever," as a result of sustained drought beginning last summer and the persisting high temperature over the past two months.
"We had very little rain since July last year, and total precipitation in the past 12 months was only 202 mm, about half the normal volume," said Hang Tong, chief of the county's meteorological bureau.
Even Yin Shizong, the only villager who managed to dig a well, worries about water scarcity.
Yin's 21-meter deep well used to supply water for six households in the village, but is now on the verge of drying up. "Sometimes the water is so dusty we have to wait for hours for the surface to become clear."
Many villagers followed Yin's suit to dig a well, but no one made it.
"All we can do is to plough the infertile land and wait for the next rainfall," said Zhang Zhongyi. "When it rains we'll plant buckwheat -- our last chance for a harvest."
Prolonged drought has also wreaked havoc in the neighboring Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, where 353,000 people suffer water shortages and 456,000 face food scarcity after seven months of no rain, the local government said Friday.
The drought has so far affected 737 villages in 11 counties, mostly in the central and southern parts of Ningxia where the climate is traditionally arid.
The local weather bureau forecasts the drought will continue through June and July.
Provinces in central and southern China, meanwhile, have rapidly shaken off drought and embraced three rounds of torrential rains this month.
The heavy rain has battered 10 southern provinces and forced about 671,200 people to evacuate their homes as of 5 p.m. Friday, according to a statement posted by the Civil Affairs Ministry on its website.
It said rains and flooding left 25 people dead and 25 more missing this week.
Ensuing floods, landslides and mudslides pelted several southwestern regions, as well as areas along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, it said.
On Thursday, China's central authorities upgraded its emergency response level to level 4, the highest level, and sent disaster relief teams to the provinces of Zhejiang, Anhui and Jiangxi, where heavy rains have triggered fatal floods.