The Lessons Of China’s Disappearing Lakes

Fifty years ago China had half as many natural lakes again as it does today. This Bystander is indebted to Xinhua for the statistic that the total has been reduced from 3,000 to 2,000, and to Caixin for this related one:

Drought stricken Hunan, Hubei, Jiangxi, Anhui and Jiangsu had a total lake area of 29,000 square kilometers around the founding of the People’s Republic. By the end of the 1980s, only 19,000 square kilometers remained.

We surmise that the lake surface has shrunk substantially since. China’s water use by farmers, growing cities and industry has increased substantially. Poyang Lake, the country’s largest freshwater lake, is a tenth of the size it once was. Hongze Lake has all but disappeared.

They have, at least so far, survived the fate of hundreds of smaller lakes along the Yangtze basin that have dried out completely or been drained and are now farmland or housing. Why this is all of more than mere curiosity is that such lakes form a natural buffer against drought and flood. Their absence is now being fatally felt.

It throws into sharp relief China’s water use policies, already complicated by the fragmentation of water management among various ministries and levels of government. But they are now at a critical juncture. China has 20% of the world’s population but only 6% of its fresh water. Urbanization and economic growth over the past three decades has stretched the country’s water supplies to their natural limits, not to mention beyond the edge of their ability to act as self-cleaning waste sewers for industry. There is a barely a river in China clean enough to drink from because of industrial pollution and spills. Even official statistics says 60% of the country’s rivers are unfit to be a drinking water supply.

Water conservation, now a policy priority, tackles the demand side of the problem. Beijing has managed some success in reducing the amount of water that agriculture, which takes 60% of the country’s water, and industry require to produce economic growth. The recently concluded five-year plan called for a 20% reduction in water consumption per unit of output. That target was met. The current five-year plan calls for it to be met again. The long-term goal is to reduce water consumption per unit of output by 60% from 2005 levels. It all helps but China remains a water hog even by BRICS’ standards and the economy is growing so fast it is a perpetual race to keep up.

Urbanization and industrialization changed the priorities of China’s water management. The growing demands for electricity in the cities led to the damming of rivers for hydroelectric power generation, with the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze the poster-child. A large amount of high-energy-use, high-pollution industries are concentrated in fast expanding cities of the the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze, China’s most densely populated region. The Three Gorges project was intended to meet that growing demand and end the seasonal power cuts that had become commonplace.

It was also intended to deal with the seasonal flooding along the river, though it doesn’t take a very close reading of official statements since to see now that the environmental impact of achieving both goals with a giant dam were little considered at the time (construction started in the 1990s) while the periodic devastating flooding of the Yangtze hurried the project forward. Even the goal of power generation has failed to be met as power shortages have come earlier than ever this year. And while there is much debate about whether such projects, and the Three Gorges in particular, cause droughts downstream, there is little argument that they worsened the the most recent one. The draining of the natural reservoirs that lined the Yangtze basin in the cause of power generation meant there was no reserve when the rains failed to come earlier this year. Those lakes had once held more than 30% of China’s fresh water.

There is now some soul-searching about the environmental effects of such mega projects, and not just because they have endanger flora and fauna like the finless porpoise in Poyang Lake. They are affecting the lives of people and the health of the economy. The political undercurrent is the threat to social stability and the possibility of environmental issues becoming a kernel of political movements that could challenge the party. As a the official Water Resources Assessment for China said a decade ago, “the water resources of lakes is closely related with the sustainable development of China’s economy and people’s life.” At least three times this year, the Three Gorges Dam has released water for drought relief, at the expense of power generation. That had dropped its water level to the point where no further releases would have been possible had the recent rains not come.

Water diversion schemes, such as the long controversial plan to divert some of the waters in the Yangtze to the Yellow and Hai rivers to supply the increasingly arid North China Plain and Beijing on its edge, are also getting a second look. The huge spending on the infrastructure for these mega projects–and thus their capacity for a little local corruption–means there is unlikely to be any agreement on a significant change of plans

There is a similar story of concern upstream on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, which held 46% of the country’s fresh water and is the source of most of China’s great rivers. As we have noted before, the Himalayan water shed is drying up. China already dams one river that rises in the Himalayas and flows south across international boundaries, the Mekong, and has reportedly started damming another, the Bhramaputra, which flows south into India and Bangladesh. Diverting water from both rivers to China’s arid plains is being considered, causing rows between Beijing and Delhi and Dhaka. Such conflicts can only get worse.

The challenge is the more urgent because of climate change. Over the past 30 years, floods have been getting bigger and more frequent around the world but no region has been more affected than the Asia-Pacific and no country in the region more than China. (A list of China’s worst floods is here.) Not only has there been more adverse extreme weather to prompt them, but more people and property are in their way thanks to urbanization.

Urban flooding is becoming a greater concern to policymakers than rural flooding. Floods in cities are both more costly and difficult to manage. The economic damage and disruption goes far beyond the immediate destruction caused by the floodwaters. In addition, rising sea levels threaten coastal cities and and their floodplains. More than 100 million Chinese have moved from inland areas to flood-prone coastal cities in the past quarter of a century.

Beijing is spending large sums of money on both river diversion to tackle drought and hard defenses such as embankments to curb floods. From 2011 to 2020, China’s investment in water conservancy projects, including flood defenses, is expected to reach 4 trillion yuan ($617 billion), almost four times as much as that spent during the past 10 years. Yet nature has provided lakes and floodplains to do the same job. An important part of fighting drought and flood is the protection, restoration and reconnection of both lakes and floodplains so they can do what they do best: take in water when the river is high and give it back when it is low.

It is increasingly being realized around the world that rivers and lakes cannot be infinitely sacrificed or bent to man’s will in the name of economic development. China’s policymakers, too, have to learn that it is unsustainable for them to continue just drawing power from the water supply come rain or shine.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Lessons Of China’s Disappearing Lakes

  1. Pingback: Drought Again Shrinking Poyang Lake | China Bystander

  2. Pingback: Shrivelling Poyang Lake | China Bystander

  3. Pingback: Ever More Arid China | China Bystander

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