KOHYON-RI, North Korea – North Korea dispatched soldiers to pour buckets of water on parched fields and South Korean officials scrambled to save a rare mollusk threatened by the heat as the worst dry spell in a century gripped the Korean peninsula.
Parts of North Korea are experiencing the most severe drought since record keeping began nearly 105 years ago, meteorological officials in Pyongyang and Seoul said Tuesday.
The protracted drought is heightening worries about North Korea's ability to feed its people. Two-thirds of North Korea's 24 million people faced chronic food shortages, the United Nations said earlier this month while asking donors for $198 million in humanitarian aid for the country.
Even in South Phyongan and North and South Hwanghae provinces, which are traditionally North Korea's "breadbasket," thousands of hectares (acres) of crops are withering away despite good irrigation systems, local officials said.
Reservoirs are drying up, creating irrigation problems for farmers, said Ri Sun Pom, chairman of the Rural Economy Committee of Hwangju County.
A group of female soldiers with yellow towels tied around their heads fanned out across a farm in Kohyon-ri, Hwangju county, North Hwanghae province, with buckets to help water the fields. An ox pulled a cart loaded with a barrel of water while fire engines and oil tankers were mobilized to help transport water.
The North Korean villages of Kohyon-ri and Ryongchon-ri were among several areas that journalists from The Associated Press visited in recent days.
Pak Tok Gwan, management board chairman of the Ryongchon Cooperative Farm in North Korea, said late last week that the farm could lose half its corn without early rain.
Mountainous North Korea, where less than 20 percent of the land is arable, has relied on outside food aid to help make up for a chronic shortage since a series of natural disasters and outmoded agricultural practices led to a famine in the 1990s. North Korean farmers still face a shortage of fuel, tractors, quality seeds and fertilizer, the U.N. said in a report earlier this month. Many irrigation systems rely on electrically powered pumping stations in a country with unstable power supplies, the report noted.
On Tuesday, North Korean state media reported record-high temperatures in Pyongyang and other cities in the southwest.
South Korean officials also reported the worst drought in more than a century in some areas after nearly two months without significant rainfall, raising worries about damage to crops and a dangerous drop in water levels in the nation's reservoirs.
"The worst drought in 104 years is causing damage to our agricultural and livestock industries, resulting in price hikes in some farm products," Finance Minister Bahk Jae-wan told a crisis management meeting Tuesday.
Nearly 28,000 South Koreans, including soldiers and local residents, have been mobilized to help water rice paddies and farm fields and more than 13,000 water pumps have been provided to drought-stricken areas, the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said.
South Korean Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik picked up a hose to water a field during a visit Tuesday to Hwaseong, south of Seoul. Beneath a blazing sun, dead fish could be seen on the nearly dried-out bed of a reservoir in Bongdam village in Hwaseong.
Rain is forecast for South Korea this weekend, the Korea Meteorological Administration said in Seoul. The agency could not confirm the dry spell reported in the North, but dispatches sent by North Korea to an international weather center indicated little rain over the past several weeks there as well, spokesman Jang Hyun-sik said.
The drought also has led to deaths of a highly endangered species in a reservoir in the southern city of Nonsan in South Korea. Hundreds of cockscomb pearl mussels have perished since June 14 when the reservoir's water levels drastically dropped, local official Lee Soo-jung said. Officials have been trying to move the cockscomb pearl mussels to water, she said.
Officials blamed high atmospheric pressure over the Korean peninsula for the drought.
Associated Press writers Kim Kwang Hyon in Kohyon-ri, North Korea, and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.