A Drier China Adds To Economy’s Woes

Officials check rice damage caused by drought in Guizhou Province, August 24, 2022. Photo credit: Xinhua/Yang Wenbin

GLANCING BACK THROUGH the archives, this Bystander came across a more-than-a-decade-old post about China’s water insecurity.

The problem persists. The unprecedented scale of this year’s heatwave and drought — phenomena that will likely be recurring as they are climate-change induced — has only exacerbated it. The consequences will have high economic costs, including some of the second-order ones.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that water shortages due to climate change are now one of the most serious threats to an economy that looks increasingly beset by structural challenges.

Droughts — and flooding — are annual events, but climate change is making them more severe and longer-lasting. That also gives foreign companies one more reason to source their raw materials, components and finished goods from elsewhere, threatening the maintenance of China’s central role in international manufacturing supply chains.

One reason that water shortages are so difficult to tackle is the uneven geographical distribution of the country’s water resources. Northern China has sparse natural water flows compared to southern China and to the requirements of its dense population and industrial concentration.

Urbanisation has caused water tables throughout northern China to fall fast, drying up irrigation wells for farmers. Poorly regulated industrialisation has worsened the problem by polluting surface and underground water reserves.

Southern China is expected to provide net water transfers to the north and other parts of the country through the South-North Water Transfer Project, a massive three-canal engineering project to divert Yangtze waters to the arid north.

However, the heatwave and drought that occurred from June to August were centred in the south, and persistently drier conditions will raise further doubts about southern China’s capacity to compensate for the north’s structural water deficit.

Economic disruption

They also imply adverse impacts in various sectors of the economy.

Monsoonal rainfall patterns usually mean that the upper Yangtze basin receives half its annual rainfall in July and August. However, during the heatwave, water levels in the Yangtze river dropped to their lowest since records began in 1865. Hydropower generation along the river fell, causing electricity rationing that interrupted industrial production. Shipping using the country’s longest watercourse, a major transportation artery, was disrupted, causing some factories downstream to close temporarily because of the non-arrival of raw materials or parts.

China’s southern and south-western provinces also export hydroelectricity to the eastern seaboard. In mid-August, Sichuan province, which relies on hydropower for 80% of its energy usage, saw its hydropower generation capacity fall by half. The provincial government there, too, required factories to ration power usage, leading to reduced production, which fed into global supply chains.

A second-order consequence is that the drier conditions will also undermine the ‘Eastern Data and Western Computing’ plan to boost the economically lagging western provinces by locating power- (and water-) hungry data centres there that will serve digital activity in the more developed eastern provinces.

The rationale for setting up data centres in poor, western provinces like Guizhou is that mountain rivers can produce hydropower to generate electricity and the mountains also provide a cool climate to help bring down the cost of cooling, one of the largest expenses for data centres. Those conditions no longer look assured.

Agriculture

Agricultural impacts will likely be significant. According to state media, the summer drought wilted hundreds of thousands of hectares of crops, probably millions.

China is a net food importer, and the government prioritises increased domestic production. Harsher farming conditions will make it more difficult to achieve food self-sufficiency. China will thus remain a significant buyer and price-setter in global food markets as climate change aggravates agricultural problems worldwide.

Beijing has few means to ameliorate persistent nationwide water deficits. The agriculture ministry advised local officials during the drought to increase efforts to ensure adequate irrigation water, open new water sources, rotate irrigation and produce artificial rainfall when necessary.

Inducing rainfall by cloud-seeding can provide local relief (providing there are some clouds to seed) but is not a systemic solution to chronic annual heatwaves and drought. Exhortations to open up new water sources are empty words when rivers and lakes are drying up.

China will double down on investing in renewable energy technologies, increasing its influence in these industries globally. Yet, less hydropower may also sustain the continued construction of coal- and oil and gas-fired power plants, reinforcing climate change effects.

Cross-border disputes

Internationally, the reliance of South and Southeast Asian countries on river water originating upstream in China means that chronic droughts in China may inflame international tensions.

China has a poor record of addressing its neighbours’ concerns about upstream dams affecting water levels in the Mekong, Salween, Ganges and Yamuna rivers.

As India’s industrial activity grows, including power-hungry sectors such as semiconductor manufacturing, management of shared rivers is likely to add to tensions with China over disputed territory.

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