Tag Archives: cloud seeding

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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Power Rationing Widens As China’s Extreme Heat Continues

SHANGHAI IS THE latest city to introduce electricity rationing as drought and extreme temperatures overstrain the country’s power grid.

Buildings along the Bund have been told to turn off external lighting for two evenings early this week to save power.

In the middle reaches of the Yangtze river, where conditions are severe, falling water levels have reduced the power supply from its hydroelectric dams. At the same time, demand for air conditioning has soared.

Factories and shopping malls in Chongqing have already been subject to temporary power cuts as authorities prioritise supply to domestic consumers.

Impacts on production have varied; vehicle maker VW says its plant has shut down, while electronics maker Foxconn says the effects have been minimal.

Authorities have extended the power saving measures by five days into a second week, with Sichuan and the rest of the Southwest bearing the brunt of the extreme heat.

Falling water levels have also disrupted shipping. Tesla’s Shanghai plant has suspended production because components are not arriving from Sichuan.

The impact on agriculture is growing, too. On Saturday, Sichuan’s provincial disaster committee said that 47,000 hectares of crops had been lost and 433,000 hectares damaged. More than 800,000 people face a shortage of drinking water.

In neighbouring Hubei province, authorities say 6.9 million hectares of crops are damaged, and a further 220,000 people are short of drinking water.

Brush fires are starting to be reported, adding further peril.

State media report that the drought threatens the autumn grain harvest, which provides three-quarters of the annual yield. Authorities are cloud seeding to try to induce rain.

China issued the year’s first national drought warning last week, a yellow alert, the third highest. The summer is the hottest and driest since China began keeping temperature and rainfall records in 1961, adding to the stress on an already slowing economy.

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Heatwave And Drought Stress China’s Electrical Power Supply

BACK IN 2009, this Bystander alighted on a press report that China spent $100 million a year on cloud-seeding to induce rain and snowfall to combat drought.

That was more than six times the figure quoted for the United States. China frequently resorts to using anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers to blast the sky with silver iodide, reportedly resorting to this way to make rain more often than any other country.

In the past, most cloud seeding occurred in the increasingly arid North China Plain. Now it is being deployed in parts of central and southwest China amid a severe drought and a two-month-long heatwave that the National Climate Centre says is the country’s longest and strongest since records were first kept in the early 1960s.

However, Hubei and several other provinces along the drought-stricken Yangtze river, now at record low levels following less than half the usual rainfall in some stretches, have run into a familiar problem with the technique: you need the clouds to seed in the first place. They are in short supply in a heatwave.

Upstream in Sichuan, the mercury has risen above 40 degrees Celsius with no immediate relief in sight. With water levels in hydropower reservoirs down by as much as half and demand for air conditioning rising, power shortages of up to several hours are widespread.

Electrical blackouts as authorities ration power are affecting industrial production. Emergency measures instituted to ensure households get priority for what power is available are forcing factories to cut back output or stop work altogether.

Foxconn’s factory in Chengdu, which makes Apple’s iPads, is one business amid a six-day shut down because of power rationing.

The overall impact on the economy of drought-induced temporary factory shutdowns will likely be minimal, but it is another drag on an already decelerating economy.

A longer-term concern may be the loss of crops for the autumn harvest, which could drive up inflation. The Ministry of Water Resources has said that the drought has affected 821,333 hectares of farmland in Sichuan, Chongqing, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi and Anhui.

Only half the usual annual release of water from the Three Gorges reservoir to relieve drought downstream has been possible this year. Many rivers and streams that flow into the Yangtse and are a source of agricultural irrigation are reported to have dried up.

Meanwhile, at the mouth of the river, Shanghai hit a sweltering 40.9 degrees Celsius in July, equalling its hottest day since the city started keeping records in 1873.

Meteorologists predict that the long-lasting heat wave will become the ‘new normal’ due to climate change.

This will force authorities to pay more attention to the inadequacies of the country’s national power grid, as evidenced by Vice Premier Han Zheng, who, on a visit to the State Grid Corporation of China this week, highlighted the importance of the energy and power supply for social and economic stability.

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Making Snow In Henan

You can’t cloud seed to induce rain- and snowfall without clouds. Now it has started snowing, albeit lightly, in Henan on the drought-parched North China Plain, the cloud seeders can set to work across the province. Those above are at Luoyang. No nation is more enthusiastic about using anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers to blast the sky with silver iodide.

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China’s $100M Rain

China spends an estimated $100 million a year on cloud-seeding efforts that include using anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers to blast the sky with silver iodide.

No indication of the source for that number, but it was reported in an Associated Press story on dealing with drought around the world (here via LA Times), and was contrasted with a figure of $15 million for the U.S.

China has had a lot of drought to contend with over the past couple of years, notably in the grain-growing and increasingly arid North China Plain, and is frequently said to do more cloud seeding to induce rain and snowfall than any other country. Of course, you need the clouds to seed in the first place. They are usually absent during a drought, so cloud seeding can amplify rain but not abort a drought by itself. So one strategy might be, say, to make it snow in October and store the melted run-off in reservoirs. Oh.

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