CHINA has issued a nationwide drought warning for the first time since 2013 as the country struggles to cope with well below-average rainfall and one of the fiercest heat waves in more than 60 years. This is the first national drought alert for the year, despite evidence of the looming problem being apparent for more than a month.
Authorities last Thursday issued a yellow alert, the third highest on the country’s four-tier scale, after China’s central and southern provinces, especially those along the Yangtze River, endured weeks of extreme heat. The heatwave conditions have adversely affected drinking-water security, reduced crop yields, threatened livestock health, and prompted some industries to shut down to conserve power for home use.
In Sichuan province, which has a population of 94 million people, authorities ordered all factories to shut down for six days last week to ease power shortages in the region after the extreme temperatures caused a significant spike in demand for air conditioning. Hydropower makes up about 80 per cent of the province’s power supply, and local officials are reporting that some reservoirs used for power generation, of which there are many in the region, are running as low as 50pc of capacity.
The Three Gorges Dam, China’s biggest hydropower venture, has increased water discharges by more than 800 million cubic metres across the 10 days to August 25 to boost downstream supplies for household use, essential industries, and the irrigation of crops. Water flows ahead of the increased release were running at about half of those recorded at the same time last year.
By last Friday, the heatwave had persisted 68 days, making it the longest since Chinese records began in 1961, and the high temperatures are forecast to remain until at least August 26. China’s National Meteorological Centre renewed its high-temperature red alert on Friday, the 30th consecutive day it had issued such a warning. Temperatures were forecast to top 40 degrees Celsius in at least 244 cities across the country on Friday and over the weekend, with the mercury expected to top 37 degrees Celsius in another 407 cities.
Some reaches at record lows or dry
The Yangtze River, Asia’s longest waterway, is at record low levels along many stretches. Water reserves in China’s two biggest freshwater lakes are also at record lows. According to the Ministry of Water Resources, rainfall across the Yangtze River basin in 2022 is down 45pc compared to the recent average. An official from the ministry stated last week that since the beginning of July, drought had affected close to 1 million hectares of farmland in the provinces of Sichuan, Chongqing, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi and Anhui.
As many as 66 rivers across 34 counties in the southwestern region of Chongqing have reportedly run dry, with rainfall registrations year to date just 40pc of the long-term average. Chinese authorities have urged officials in drought-hit regions to make plans to maintain water supply by taking steps such as temporary water transfer, developing new water sources and extending pipe networks for irrigation.
On August 17, the Ministry of Water Resources warned that the severe drought conditions along the Yangtze River could last well into September with no rainfall relief in sight. Normal water flows could be months away as local governments race to maintain power and find fresh water to irrigate crops ahead of the autumn harvest. The ministry has instructed drought-hit agricultural regions to ration demand for irrigation water by drawing up rosters determining who can access supplies at any particular time to ensure they do not run out.
Beijing calls for cloud seeding
Beijing unveiled measures to ease the impact of the drought last week, including cloud seeding to prompt rainfall, US$44 million in disaster relief for the hardest-hit communities and shutdowns of some energy-intensive industries. However, cloud cover has been too thin, forcing the seeding operations in some drought-ravaged parts of the river’s basin to be placed on standby.
China has the most extensive cloud-seeding programs in the world, with the practice first adopted in the 1940s. The government utilised the technology ahead of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 to ensure dry weather for the two-week event. The technique can also be used to induce snowfall or soften forecast hailstorms. Silver iodide rods, typically the size of cigarettes, are shot into clouds to help form ice crystals. These crystals then help the clouds produce more water, making their moisture content heavier and more likely to be released as rain.
Concerns for autumn grain
The prolonged drought is threatening this year’s autumn grain harvest, which accounts for around 75pc of the nation’s annual grain output. August and September are the critical months for grain development and yield determination. This month has been hot and dry and next month’s forecast is not pretty. The Yangtze River basin is one of the major grain-producing regions in China, contributing nearly half of the country’s crop output, including over two-thirds of the total rice production.
Despite the exceptionally high temperatures and record low rainfall, government authorities appear to be blindly optimistic about the upcoming harvest. An official agency noted that although seasonal disasters, including heatwaves and droughts, may affect the yields of some autumn crops, this year’s harvest will be unchanged. It added that the growth of corn, middle-season rice, soybean and other major autumn crops is the same as last year, and an expansion in the planted area will compensate for lost production.
However, in an all-too-familiar theme, Beijing’s actions don’t appear to match the rhetoric. While the government plays down the issue, local authorities are frantically adopting measures to mitigate a potential disaster. No doubt this approach is not only for fear of scaring its own people, but more importantly, China doesn’t want to broadcast to the world an impending production shortfall and the possibility it may need to increase imports to fill a demand void.