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Standing in the dust of the Gobi Desert, three Chinese soldiers stripped to the waist and beaded with sweat shovel dirt spewed up by a diamond-tipped drill whirring deep underground in search of water.

In recent years, China, which for centuries has been hit by crippling droughts, has intensified its struggle to find water to meet growing demand from farmers, booming industry and burgeoning cities. So far it has had limited success.In the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia, the wind, sun and rivers of sweat pouring into their eyes forced the soldiers to take an unscheduled break in their search after just 20 minutes.

"I think we'll strike water tomorrow," said Lt. Col. Li Guoan, their commanding officer, and a household name in China's pantheon of socialist heroes for his commitment to the pursuit of water.

"We're close and I thought we'd find water today," said Li, commander of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) water supply regiment in Hohhot, regional capital of China's northern Inner Mongolia region.

Most of the responsibility has fallen on the PLA, which has set up and enlarged water supply regiments and sent thousands of soldiers bouncing across remote parts of China in rickety jeeps to find new sources of water.

The army has been most active in five drought-prone northern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia - some of China's main grain-producing areas.

In arid Inner Mongolia, which accounts for more than 10 percent of China's land but is home to just 28 million of its 1.21 billion people, the PLA has dug at least 125 wells since 1991 to tap ancient underground acquifers, Li said.

The wells have transformed the lives of thousands of Inner Mongolian villagers, sparing them from lengthy walks to collect water for drinking, cooking and washing.

"Life here is much better than it used to be before we got the new well," said a sun-baked and wind-battered woman in Xinyinli, near Hohhot, where the PLA sank a well in 1992.

"Look at how white my granddaughter's teeth are from drinking clean water," the old woman said, coaxing a smile from the young girl in her arms.

Her own teeth are brittle and stained yellow from drinking water low in fluoride and high in bacteria from a well dug more than 40 years ago, she said.

"Every time we drink water, we think of the PLA," says a plaque erected by the village Communist Party beside the new well.

But while the PLA may be winning new friends and some of its battles against drought, it could be losing the war.

Some 70 million Chinese farmers and 60 million livestock still frequently lack drinking water, Water Resources Minister Niu Maosheng said on World Water Day in March.

Since 1990, one fifth or 64 million acres of China's 270 million acres of arable land, have been hit by drought, costing China 35 million tons of lost grain output a year, Niu said.

"China's 2.8 trillion cubic meters of water reserves sounds like a lot and is sixth in the world, but as soon as that is divided by population it becomes pitifully small," Niu wrote in the People's Daily.