LIJIANG, China -- After photographing Black Dragon Lake here for eight years, He Jiaxin knows of more places where he can get the lake to mirror the majesty of its surrounding mountains than anyone else. But this year, he has a problem: The lake has disappeared.
Since its springs dried up last year, no water has flowed into Black Dragon Lake for more than 400 days. At the same time, hot weather caused a high evaporation rate, turning a large part of the lake into a play yard for children.
"I've never seen such a dry-up before," He, a 36-year-old local photographer, said while staring at the parched lake bed. "It hasn't rained in Lijiang for a really long time."
Lijiang is hardly alone. Similar situations are happening across other parts of Yunnan province, which usually has more rain than half of China's regions. But it has experienced extremely low rainfall for the past three years.
In the first quarter of this year, Yunnan's average rainfall dropped by 70 percent, indicating the start of the drought's fourth consecutive year, according to the water resources department in the region.
As national demand for Yunnan's hydroelectricity and other products keeps rising, the region is losing one of its most abundant resources -- water -- to produce them. The province is scrambling to adopt measures that would ease water stress, with mixed results. Meanwhile, its fast-growing population and economy are adding more water security problems.
Already, "when we look into the annual precipitation index we use, we can see that there has been no 'wet' month in Yunnan in the last four years," said Marco Gemmer, a senior adviser of the China Meteorological Administration in Beijing.
"The length and intensity of the drought is larger than we have recorded in the past 60 years," he added.
Forecast: more extreme weather and less relief
Gemmer attributes the record drought to changed atmospheric circulation, with less water transported in 2009 from the Gulf of Bengal, where Yunnan's rainfall is generated, being a prime example. Other reasons include a warmer climate than usual.
"The atmosphere is a complex system, and small changes can have an effect at the other end of the globe," Gemmer explained. "Assuming that there will be further changes in the atmospheric system under global warming, we should be prepared for more unusual events in the future, which could also include extremely wet conditions causing floods or landslides."
Meanwhile, Yunnan is losing an ally that once helped absorb such changes. To boost the local economy, the region has been replacing its natural forests with more commercial trees like eucalyptus plantings on a large scale.
As bushes and other vegetation are cleared as part of that process, forests have a weakened ability to lock in rainwater, according to a study released this year by Greenpeace. In one county of Yunnan, the report notes, water reserves close to commercial forests dried up, while 30 miles away water was plentiful because natural surrounding forests remained uncut.
So if Yunnan continues to replace its natural forests, Greenpeace warns, the region's forestry sector will no longer be able to conserve as much water when rainfall runs low.
'The hardest time in my life'
That's a thing Yang Zhikun definitely does not want to happen. Living in a village without modern infrastructure, Yang's family relies on springs for water, but because of the recent drought there has been no water flowing into his household tank for more than 20 days.
Yang explained that he has to borrow water from distant neighbors. And if rain still doesn't come this month when the tobacco growing season begins, Yang faces a bigger challenge.