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Implications of the Drought in China

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011
drought in china

China's freshwater resources represent about 6 percent of the total global available amount. However, the Yangzte River basin, around the middle and lower parts of the vast country, has remained parched for several months now. The drought continues to be a grim reminder of the unscientific overuse of limited water resources that has fed China's growth in the past century.

Early Warning Signs of Drought

There have been indicators forecasting the worst Chinese drought in several years. Weather changes, declining coastlines, and the quick rate at which several vital feeder lakes such as Lake Honghu disappeared and were replaced by fields and fish farms, all portended drastic drought conditions.

The Danjinagkou Dam, which is one of the largest water reservoirs slated to feed one of the largest water projects in the country, has been consistently drying up over the last decade. The consequently parched northern cities, including Beijing, are thus being fed by water diverted from the Yangtze.

The Three Gorges Dam, which is one of the largest hydroelectric power projects in the world, is again shrinking by millimeters each day. Lakes in Central Hubei province are known to have shrunk to 207sq km of water from their earlier 348 sq km, despite this being the time of year when water needs to be at maximum capacity.

"I'm 70 and it's never been this bad. You can walk across and it only comes up to your knees. We used to always worry about floods, not droughts, not ones as bad as this," says Xiao, one of the residents around the lake.

Yangtze Feeds China's Farms and Industrial Hubs

One of the country's biggest rivers is the Yangtze, which acts as a lifeline along wherever it flows. It represents almost one-third of the total water resources available in China. With one-fifth of the world's population, China has been in the throes of drought over the past year, especially in certain key regions that have affected the entire production and availability of produce for domestic consumption and export.

The Yangtze feeds farmlands as well industrial hinterlands, especially along the middle and eastern course of the river. This region too now suffers from severe drought, possibly the worst in the last 50 years. Rainfall in the region has fallen by over 40 to 60 percent annually and has created additional pressure on the localized water resources of the region.

There are several worst-case scenarios occurring around Lake Honghu, where innumerable farmers are losing crops, fish farms, and will soon lose drinking water as well. The once lush green fields are today parched patches in colors of barren yellow. Once hot-spots of aquatic culture, these fields and ponds are now without their rich sources of fish, shrimp, or crab. The landscape instead has wilted into dwindling dry lotus ponds.

The Yangtze region is not facing such an extreme a case as this in other parts, and with the coming rains, it is expected to regain its full capacity. However, the warning signs are now being sounded for possibilities of floods to occur.

Lessons to be Learned from the Drought

Hydrologists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing are a highly worried lot nowadays. This year's drought has truly sent these environmentalists to read the bigger lessons behind the tenacious dry spell. Says Xia Jun, a hydrologist at the institute, "There have been even worse droughts before, but now these episodes can be increasingly serious, because economic development is bringing increasing pressure on water resources, and the effects of disaster spread out wider and are felt in more ways."

Experts are of the opinion that these droughts will give rise to further droughts in the future, which will continue to wreak havoc on the overall balance of the ecosystem of the region. A prominent water expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Liu Changming, says, "The accelerated extinction of such lakes in recent decades has deprived areas along the Yangtze of a natural buffer against drought and flood."

The situation calls for planned and proper action, as close to 1,000, or one third, of natural Chinese lakes are disappearing, and this will impact the production of several food crops, including the all-important rice crop.

"A single drought this year won't lead to the collapse of China's economy, but this will have an impact, one that shows the threat that China faces from water stress," said Xia.

Implications of the Drought on China and the Globe

That Chinese exports influence global consumption has been conclusively proven yet again with the slowing down of its grains output. The seriousness of the drought is better understood when statistics show that over 35 million people from close to five provinces in Central and lower parts of the Yangzte river basin have been economically affected. The direct impact in financial losses comes to the tune of 15 billion yuan, or US$2.3 billion.

Government officials claim price crops will be sustained at the national level, but these five provinces cover half the total acerage of rice production in the country. He Xuefeng, director of the China Rural Governance Research Center at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, capital of Hubei, says, "Our estimate is that the affected area would amount to no more than 10 percent of Hubei's total acreage, and even these areas will be able to plant later crops if rains come."

Food and trade analysts say that decreased production in rice may be sustained at the national level of common food crops such as rice, but it is corn consumption that will be most affected, and close to 1.5 million tons will have to be imported from the US alone to sustain the country's demands. Other food grains too are continually being sourced from lesser-priced countries such as Argentina, as a food reserve alternative to the US.

Drought will Impact Domestic Power

One of the immediate effects of drought is hydroelectricity production. The lowered production levels have seriously impacted the quantity of electricity available for distribution by the government authorities. By late May of this year, the Three Gorges Dam, one of the largest hydroelectric power-generating stations in the world, had fallen from a water level of 152.7 meters, and was expected to reach close to 145 meters by June 10. The period of May to October is the peak period of electricity production in China, 20 percent of which is generated by hydroelectric power.

However, analysts believe the main reason for the current power shortage is largely the lower power prices which are being controlled to feed manufacturing units, thereby preventing hydroelectric power generation from being optimized. Drought is incidental to the overall lowered production of hydroelectric power in China, presently.

The Road Map Ahead

China has a very limited pathway ahead of it. It has to improvise and implement greener practices of production as the present heavy pressures on the limited water resources available for both irrigation and industrial production is creating a widespread negative impact. Alternative resources for industries have to be found, since there are such a large number of industries involved.

Economic growth at the cost of environment degradation is a non-progressive route. Sustained development will provide a positive impact and better all-around results for China.

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