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Dry China

ANSHUN, GUIZHOU PROVINCE, CHINA -- The Huangguoshu Waterfall in China’s southwestern Guizhou Province is a magnificent sight, when there is water. The largest waterfall in Asia, it plunges over a sheer cliff more than 200 feet high in a thundering display of foam, mist, and rainbows.

Unfortunately, this wonder of nature has recently suffered an indignity. Each evening, it gets turned off as if it were a garden fountain. This part of China’s southwest, known for its abundant rainfall, mountains, underground rivers and caves, and tropical flora, has recently been gripped by a drought that many say is the worst since the Ming Dynasty.

So, after all the tourists that irrigate this poor region with precious income leave the viewing platforms below the falls, authorities close the sluice gates that dam the White Water River on the dangerously low upstream reservoir, and the falls cease. Then, each morning, before the tourists reappear, they unceremoniously open the gates again, so that the eerily silent falls suddenly revive in a simulacrum of normalcy.

The disturbance to so elemental a part of this region’s natural architecture is a measure of only one of the many kinds of severe weather aberrations – from floods and droughts to unseasonal blizzards and massive dust storms – that have been unsettling China of late. No one can say with any certainty what the causes are.