Tag Archives: drought

Persistent Drought Starts To Threaten China’s Crops

Dried-up bed of the Xinba reservoir in Shilin County, Yunnan Province, March 22, 2012.

The persistent drought that has hit 13 provinces in southwest and central China is starting to have an adverse impact on farming, China’s drought-relief officials have indicated for the first time. The fear is that the spring planting on 4 million hectares of crop land is threatened by the shortage of water. Reservoirs, such as the one in the picture above, in Shilin County, Yunnan, have dried up, worsening China’s structural water shortages. Approaching 8 million people and 4.6 million head of livestock are short of drinking water, officials say, with the latest number suggesting the impact of the lack of rain is spreading with the drought now in its third year in some parts. Yunnan, Sichuan, Hebei, Shanxi and Gansu are worse affected. A widespread emergency relief effort is underway.

Footnote: The main cash crops in Yunnan, where the drought is most intense, are rice, maize and wheat. The province is also known for its tobacco and tea.

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New Pictures Of Yunnan Drought

A boy carries water with his mother in Dayeshan Village of Shilin County, southwest China's Yunnan Province, March 22, 2012. A severe drought has lingered in Yunnan for three consecutive years, leaving 3.2 million people and 1.65 million livestock short of water. A total of 7.9 million people and 676,650 hectares farmland of 125 counties all over the province have been affected by the drought.(Xinhua/Jin Liangkuai)

State media has published a new set pictures of the lingering drought in Yunnan. Now into its third year, it has touched nearly 8 million people and become part of daily life, as the photograph above, taken in a village in Shilin County, shows. More than 3 million people are short of drinking water. Water levels in reservoirs in some parts of the province are at their lowest in a decade. The photo below shows a reservoir in Shilin County that has dried out completely. Crops on more than 130,000 hectares of farmland have withered. A significant emergency relief effort is underway across the province.

Last month, officials said that more than 3 million people across the country were short of drinking water because of drought. After Yunnan, the most serious drought is in Inner Mongolia. Gansu and Hubei have also been affected.

Meanwhile, a forest wildfire on the outskirts of Yunnan’s provincial capital, Kunming, that raged for two days at the beginning of the week before being brought under control has flared up again. Update: It has since been brought under control (pictures via Xinhua) but a second forest fire in the region has taken hold. Yunnan is China’s second most heavily forested province.

A villager walks on the dried-up bed of the Xinba reservoir in Shilin County, southwest China's Yunnan Province, March 22, 2012. A severe drought has lingered in Yunnan for three consecutive years, leaving 3.2 million people and 1.65 million livestock short of water. A total of 7.9 million people and 676,650 hectares farmland of 125 counties all over the province have been affected by the drought. (Xinhua/Jin Liangkuai)

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Pumping Greenhouse Gases From Deep Below The North China Plain

Pumping water from the deep aquifer below the increasingly arid North China Plain has a hidden cost beyond the depletion of irreplaceable water resources, a new joint UK-China study reveals. Farmers are now pumping so much irrigation water from such deep levels, up to 70 meters-80 meters below ground in some provinces, that the energy required to drill the wells and run the diesel pumps accounts for more than half a percent of China’s total greenhouse-gas emissions.

Overall, farming accounts for 17–20% of China’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions, the study’s authors say. Pumping water for irrigation is one of farmers’ most energy intensive activities. The study, conducted by scientists from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the U.K.’s University of East Anglia, claims to be the first detailed estimate of greenhouse-gas emissions from groundwater pumping for irrigation. The authors say its shows that “significant potential exists to promote the co-benefits of water and energy saving in order to meet national planning targets”.

The scale of the challenge of realizing those benefits is that the current five-year plan aims to increase irrigation water use efficiency by 3% by 2015, emphasizing the importance of improving groundwater resource management to control over-exploitation. However, this is to be achieved whilst increasing total grain production by 13% to 450 million tonnes and decreasing national energy consumption per unit of GDP by 16%.

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More Emergency Relief For Drought-Stricken Yunnan

Photo taken on Feb. 24, 2012 shows cracked land in a pond at Fanglang Village in Malong County of southwest China's Yunnan Province. A brutal drought has wracked the province since late last year, leaving at least 3.15 million people without sufficient supplies of drinking water as of Monday, according to government statistics. (Xinhua/Lin Yiguang)

Emergency funds of 500 million yuan ($80 million) are being allocated for drought-relief in Yunnan, the finance ministry says. This follows the announcement earlier this month of 120 million yuan in relief assistance from central government on top of the 180 million yuan earmarked by the provincial government.

A three-year long drought that has worsened significantly since December has left 3.2 million people short of water. In recent days, more than 1,000 armed police have been deployed to deliver emergency supplies and build water storage facilities in the 15 prefectures in the province worst hit.

The photograph of a dried-out pond, above, was taken on February 24th in Malong county. There are other recent photographs here. The lack of rainfall has dried up more than 270 rivers and 410 small reservoirs, officials say. It is also putting at risk for fire more than 130,000 hectares of forests and more than four times as much cropland. Direct economic losses from the drought are estimated to have already topped 2 billion yuan.

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Ever More Arid China

A villager walks on the cracked croplands in Pingman Village of Tianlin County, south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Sept. 7, 2011.The most difficult natural resource for a country short of it to acquire is the one most vital to life: water. Nature has not dealt China a good hand. It has a fifth of the world’s population but only a fifteenth of its fresh water. But it has played a poor hand badly. And unlike, say soya beans, iron ore or any other commodity for which rising prosperity is increasing demand beyond the country’s capacity to supply, China can’t just ship in water from distant lands.

How seriously short of water China has become was emphasized again this week by Hu Siyi, vice-minister of water resources. Even though China consumes more than 600 billion cubic meters of water a year, that is more than 50 billion cubic meters less than it needs. To put a more human face on the shortfall, nearly 300 million rural residents lack access to safe drinking water. Two-thirds of Chinese cities are ‘water-needy’, to use Hu’s phrase, which seems to be a marked worsening of the situation from last November when a State Council announcement of a 10-year drought-alleviation plan said 110 out of China’s 658 cities had suffered from water shortages. Meanwhile, two in five Chinese rivers are seriously polluted and unfit for drinking because sewage and waste water has been discharged into them. One in five is so polluted it is rated Category 5 on a scale of 1-5 for water quality. Category 5 means too toxic even to touch.

Rapid industrialization and urbanization has driven both the shortages and degradation of the water supply compounded by climate change. Drought in the wheat belt on the North China Plain has become all but the norm, leading to growing concern about grain supply. At the northeastern end of the plain, the capital’s growing thirst only compounds the problem. Last summer’s persistent drought in southwestern China left 14 million people short of drinking water, damaged millions of hectares of farmland and left industry short of power after river levels fell too low to drive hydroelectric power generation plants. This week, more than 3 million people are short of water because of the drought lingering in Yunnan and other ones in Jiangxi and Inner Mongolia.

An international spotlight has fallen on the shriveling of  Poyang Lake, China’s largest freshwater lake, home to the rare finless porpoise and winter home for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds including the Siberian crane which have traditionally depended just as much on the lake’s dwindling fish stocks as Poyang’s increasingly unemployed human fishermen. Yet its story is not uncommon. Fifty years ago China had half as many natural lakes again as it does today. Two thirds of those that have survived are chemically polluted. That is scarcely a better fate than the hundreds of smaller lakes along the Yangtze basin that have dried out completely or been drained for farmland and housing.

Hu acknowledges that water shortages, serious river and lake pollution and the deteriorating aquatic ecology threaten the country’s sustainable growth. Such a disruption to the country’s economic and social development would pose a direct threat to the Party legitimacy to rule, hence the gravity with which it is being taken at the highest levels of government. “We must put in place the strictest water resources management system,” Hu says.

New guidelines cap national water consumption at 670 billion cubic meters by 2020, and 700 billion cubic meters by 2030, with compulsory measures to enforce them and a system of water-use licenses to be introduced. It will be a tough target to meet, even with the help of 4 trillion yuan ($635 billion) designated for water conservation projects during the current five-year plan, which calls for a repeat of the 20% reduction in water consumption per unit of output achieved under the previous plan. The long-term goal is to reduce water consumption per unit of output by 60% from 2005 levels.

Strict water resources management also means reining in the untrammeled provincial hyrdo-dam building and urban water diversion projects, as well as taking greater control over local drilling into deep aquifers, a short-term solution that will cause long-term problems as it is tapping the reservoirs of last resort. This is a particular issue on the North China Plain. On top of that, Beijing will have to enforce existing environmental protections and good water management policies, which often get brushed aside by local officials for whom promoting economic growth is the priority and a river or lake seen as little more than a self-cleaning sewer for industry that they don’t have to build. Step one will be to end the fragmentation of water management among various ministries and levels of government. Beijing will also have to promote the reuse and recycling of urban water, improve irrigation methods in the countryside (farmers use 85% of China’s water), end water subsidies and make industry less wasteful users of water. International companies like Siemens and GE see big potential business in all this.

China remains a water hog even by BRICS’ standards and the economy is still growing fast enough for it to be a perpetual race to keep up. Yet so unsustainable is the current demand for water, if Beijing doesn’t deal with the crisis, it faces the prospect of water civil wars as farmers, city dwellers and industry fight for who gets what water there is in China. In 2004, the World Bank warned of the possibility of tens of thousands of environmental internal refugees, fleeing the increasingly arid North China Plain, which has 42% of China’s population but only 8% of its water. Hu’s latest comments suggest the prospect is now not that far-fetched.

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New Pictures Of Shrivelling Poyang Lake

Photo taken on Jan. 5, 2012 shows the dried lakebed of Poyang Lake in east China's Jiangxi Province. The surface area of Poyang Lake, China's largest freshwater lake, has shrunk to less 200 square-kilometers. And the water level at Xingzi station, a hydrology mark, dropped to 7.86 meters. Poyang Lake is fed by five rivers in the province and empties into the nation's longest river, the Yangtze. (Xinhua/Zhou Ke)

Xinhua has posted a new gallery of pictures, taken on January 5th and including the one above, of Poyang Lake, China’s largest freshwater lake that, as we noted yesterday, has been reduced by drought and the competing demands for water from industrialization, urbanization and agriculture to 5% of its original surface area.

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Shrivelling Poyang Lake

Poyang Lake, China's largest freshwater lake, is now one-twentieth of its former size.

When this Bystander last checked on Poyang Lake, China’s largest freshwater lake, in September it was recovering from the severe spring drought that had shrunk it to 400 sq. kms, barely a third of its average size over the past decade. That replenishment has not only stopped. It has been dramatically reversed, as the picture above, published earlier this week by state media and reportedly taken on Tuesday, and the one below, taken in November, show. Jiangxi’s provincial hydrographic bureau says the lake’s surface area is now less than 188 sq. kms, about 5% of its former size. At full capacity, it is as large as 4,500 sq. kms, or  more than six times the size of Singapore.

The lake is fed by five rivers in Jiangxi and empties into the Yangtze. Its water level has fallen so far that fishing is possible for barely three months of the year. The lake used to provide a livelihood for a fleet of 10,00 fishing boats, as well as being home to a rare finless porpoise. It also supports hundreds of thousands of migratory birds including the Siberian crane in winter, that, like the fishermen, depend on a lake full of fish to survive. The lake’s nature reserve authority is planning to stock the lake again to help both groups, though last year’s restocking failed as so many of the fry perished for lack of water. In November, the birds had to have food brought in.

Lack of rain this year is being blamed for Poyang’s shrivelling, but it is far from the only lake in China to be drying up. Nor is drought the sole reason.

A dead fish lies on the exposed riverbed of the Poyang Lake in Duchang, east China's Jiangxi Province, Nov. 4, 2011.

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Southwest China’s Drought Now Into Second Year

Dried-up field at drought-affected Xiaoshayi Village of Shilin Yi Autonomous County, southwest China's Yunnan Province, Sept. 7, 2011. Amid bursting coal mines and trembling quakes, it is easy to forget that southwestern China is still suffering from a serious and prolonged drought that started in the autumn of 2009. While more than 14 million people have been affected across the region, nowhere is the situation more serious than in Yunnan, China’s eighth largest province and where the photograph to the left was taken in September. More than 2.3 million people and 1.3 million head of cattle there are now having trouble finding drinking water, provincial vice-governor Kong Chuizhu said earlier this month.

Rainfall in the province this year has been the lowest on record at 841 millimeters as of November 3rd, and 20% below last year’s average level, itself an unusually dry year. Water levels in Yunnan’s ponds and reservoirs are at their lowest for 17 years. Some 821,000 hectares–around a twelfth of the province’s farmland–has become arid with 60,000 hectares so parched it is not expected to yield a crop next season. Yunnan grows rice, wheat and other grains as cash crops and is China’s leading sugar producing province, along with neighboring Guangxi Zhuang. Agriculture is Yunnan’s most important economic activity, with an estimated 80-95% of the labor force working on the land in farming that is highly intensive as so much of the province is mountainous and forested.

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Relieving Parched China

Zhao Qingde, a local villager, collects water to feed cattle from a reservoir which is drying up at drought-affected Ayulin Village of Shilin Yi Autonomous County, southwest China's Yunnan Province, Sept. 7, 2011. Lingering drought has affected 16,987 hectares, or nearly 70 percent of the total area, of crops throughout the county.

The newly approved 10-year drought alleviation plan lifts a corner on the extent of China’s growing water shortages. Two out of three of the country’s counties and 110 out of its 658 cities have suffered from water shortages, according to a statement issued after the State Council meeting approving the plan. This summer’s persistent drought in southwestern China left 14 million people short of drinking water, damaged millions of hectares of farmland and left industry short of power after river levels fell too low to drive hydroelectric power generation plants. Meanwhile drought in the wheat belt on the North China Plain has become all but the norm, leading to growing concern about grain supply.

Fifty years ago China had half as many natural lakes again as it does today. Climate change and growing demands for water are the cause of drought occurring increasingly frequently. The new plan is to build more reservoirs, set up a drought-monitoring network to help with early drought relief, and promote water conservation, particularly in agriculture. Price controls may be imposed on projects that consume large amounts of water. The goal is to “significantly improve” access to drinking water in drought-hit counties by 2015 and to ensure safe supplies of drinking and irrigation water within five years after that.

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China’s Power Shortages Set To Persist

The drought in southwestern China is now not only leaving farmland parched but it is also starting to hit industry hard. Officials say a lack of water to drive hydroelectric power plants will cause electricity shortages not just this autumn, as has become the seasonal norm, but through the winter .

Water levels in the drought affected areas are down 30-40% from last year, with only limited replenishment from rains expected this autumn. The hydro-caused shortages are been exacerbated by coal-fired power plants also falling short of output goals. Coal prices are rising but utilities can’t raise prices to end-consumers by anything like as much, so they are cutting back production and taking plants off-line for ‘maintenance’ rather than suffer increased losses by generating power.

Difficulties in shipping coal to the power plants has only made matters worse, while the lack of a national grid means that regions with surplus power, notably Inner Mongolia, can’t export it to the rest of the country. Industrial plants in Shanghai and elsewhere on the eastern seaboard have been subject to intermittent power rationing since the summer, as have those in some other parts of the country, such as Guizhou, Qinghai, Gansu and Shanxi. Commercial users have been leaned on to reduce their demand by closing down operations at times of peak demand.

Earlier this year, officials anticipated a nationwide shortage equivalent to a generating capacity of 40 gigaWatts, or 4% of national capacity. The persistent drought in the south and southwest has probably made that number an underestimate. The power shortages are said to be the worse since 2004.

Demand has also been boosted by the boom in sales of white goods over the past couple of years and the property bubble, which has seen badly insulated buildings thrown up by the acre. On some estimates four out of five new homes built since 2008 are thermally inefficient.

With an installed power generation capacity of more than 1,000 GW, China has the largest power system in the world after the U.S. but demand is growing at more than 10% per year. Meeting it requires investment along a rickety supply chain that runs from antiquated coal mines to power plants and on to end-users.

Getting more market based pricing for electricity would go a long way to sorting out the problem. Wholesale electricity prices were raised in parts of the country in May and some commercial and industrial users saw higher tariffs in June, but it is politically difficult to raise prices for residential consumers while consumer price inflation remains so stubbornly high. In truth, China’s energy sector is stuck half way between state and market. As a result, there are incoherent signals about what is the necessary level of supply and investment, and over the incentives for energy saving, despite the much touted development of green energy technologies to make the economy less energy intensive.

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