Millions of people living along the lower reaches of the Yangtze River are suffering amid the worst drought in 60 years, and environmentalists and local officials say the giant Three Gorges Dam is making it worse. The government, though, ascribes their plight to climate change. Environmentalist Fan Xiao is in no doubt that the rapid filling of the Three Gorges reservoir to its maximum height in recent weeks has aggravated the drought that has ravaged southern and central China since last month. It had been done during the dry season, Fan, a geologist in Sichuan , said. What was more, dozens of dams upstream of the Three Gorges had also been trying to fill their reservoirs. At the request of drought-hit provinces, the China Three Gorges Project Corporation, the dam's owner and developer, has now delayed its plan to raise the water level to its peak by the end of this month. Dai Qing, a writer, environmentalist and critic of the project, said the fact it had had to stop raising the reservoir's level and discharge more water showed there was a link between the drought and the dam. Authorities have denied the dam is to blame for the drought. Xinhua quoted scholars at top government-backed research institutes defending the 185-metre-tall barrage. They said prolonged dry spells caused by global warming were the main culprit for the drought. Local officials in many areas hit hard by the drought say droughts have become more frequent since the company in charge of the dam - the world's biggest hydropower project - began trying to raise the reservoir's level to its maximum 175 metres a few years ago. The authorities consider reaching that mark will signal the project's completion. Officials at the flood control and drought relief office in Hunan , one of the worst-hit provinces, told the Xiaoxiang Morning Post that the drought had worsened since early this month when efforts to fill the Three Gorges reservoir were stepped up. More than three million people in Hunan have suffered severe water shortages this month due to a drought along the Xiang River. Water levels in lakes and rivers along the Yangtze River, including those in downstream Anhui and Jiangsu provinces, had dropped to 20-year lows, posing severe threats to river navigation, China News Service reported. The water levels in the country's biggest lakes, Poyang in Jiangxi and Dongting in Hunan, are the lowest in 60 years. Dam control centre chief Yuan Jie told China Central Television yesterday that the ambitious task of filling the reservoir had suffered a setback and completion this year was unlikely. 'It'll be very difficult to fulfil the water-raising task if we don't see an increase of water flowing into the reservoir from the upper reaches or an early relief of the drought,' he said. The water level in the reservoir had risen to nearly 171 metres by Tuesday, but the company was forced to increase its discharge of water in the past few days to alleviate the drought downstream. Fan said the dam company was driven by profit, had ignored the plight of people living downstream and had never addressed the many environmental and geological woes its construction had triggered. Xinhua reported this week that with the reservoir's level rising, geological hazards - including landslides and minor earthquakes - had increased.