Wan Jinjun, a 62-year-old retiree who has swum in the Yangtze River almost every day for the past decade in Wuhan, said he’s never seen a drought like this before.

An extreme summer has taken a toll on Asia’s longest river, which flows about 6,300 kilometers through China and feeds farms that provide much of the country’s food as well as massive hydroelectric stations, including the Three Gorges Dam — the world’s biggest power plant. A year ago, water lapped almost as high as the riverbank where Wan swims. Now, the level is at the lowest for this time of year since records began in 1865, exposing swathes of sand, rock and oozing brown mud that reeks of rotting fish.

"And it keeps going down,” said Wan, who last week needed to descend almost 100 steps — usually hidden beneath the water-line — to cool off on a sweltering 40 degree Celsius day.