Tag Archives: Poyang Lake

Poyang Lake Shrinks Again

The two views above are taken from the same vantage point less than 90 days apart. They show Yinshan Island in Poyang Lake, China’s largest freshwater lake, which has been undergoing repeated cycles of shrinkage. At the time of the bottom photo was taken, late July, the lake covered an area of 3,990 square kilometers. The upper photo was taken this week. The lake’s surface area had shrunk to 1,060 square kilometers. There are more photos taken this week of Poyang Lake here.

That, though, is not as small as the lake got at the beginning of this year when it was down to 188 square kilometers. In its pomp, Poyang covers 4,500 square kilometers, an area six times the size of Singapore.

The lake is fed by five rivers in Jiangxi and empties into the Yangtze. Its water level now regularly falls 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 supporting 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.

Poyang is also home to a rare finless porpoise, which is increasingly threatened with extinction. Its numbers in Lakes Poyang and Dongting were down to 600 in 2006 in a count that also covered the Yangtse. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is due to conduct its next survey in November and December. The results are awaited with some trepidation. The Yangtse’s other rare porpoise, the Baiji, has become extinct.

Poyang has been in decline for a decade, a casualty of industrialization, urbanization and agriculture. The WWF estimates that half China’s industrial waste and sewage ends up in the Yangtse. Some of that feeds into the lake. Only now are efforts being made to regenerate it before it is too late.

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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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Drought Again Shrinking Poyang Lake

China’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Poyang, is shriveling up again in the current drought. The lake, in Jiangxi and which feeds into the Yangtze, has shrunk to 964 sq. kms, barely a third its average size over the past decade, officials say. In the severe drought that occurred in the spring, the lake dwindled to 400 sq. kms in mid-May before heavy summer rains started to restore it. But now, the lake’s water level is dropping again, by a meter every five to ten days, as its surface area shrinks.

Lake Poyang is by far from the only lake in China to be drying up. Nor is drought the sole reason.

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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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Drought Worsens, Three Gorges May Run Short Of Relief Water

The drought in central and southern China, now spreading east along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze river has affected more than 5% of the country’s farmland, officials say. That is 7 million hectares of crops, with approaching 1m head of livestock short of water. Economic losses are put at 15 billion yuan ($2.3 billion) so far. Vegetable prices have risen by a fifth in the drought-struck areas. Some 35 million people across five provinces have been affected with more than 4 million short of drinking water. The country’s two largest freshwater lakes, Dongting Lake in Hunan and Poyang Lake in Jiangxi, are drying up. The centers of both now cracked mud and grassland.

There is no rain in the forecast to alleviate the country’s worst drought in half a century. In Hunan, it is now being described as the worst drought in nearly a century while Shanghai is having its driest spell in 138 years.

The rate of discharge from the Three Gorges Dam has again been increased to help with irrigation downstream at the start of the summer farming season. The rate is now running at 10-20% above normal, but officials say that the dam won’t be able to continue providing sufficient water after mid-June if there is no rain as the dam’s water level would by then have fallen to 145 meters, 10 meters below the minimum considered necessary for shipping’s safety.

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Relentless Rains Prompt Comparisons With 1998’s Deadly Floods

The death toll from the rain-triggered landslide in Guizhou three days ago that buried 37 homes under an estimated 2 million cubic meters of mud has risen to 13 with 86 others missing but presumed dead. The rescue operation has turned into one of recovery. The picture below shows paramilitary police searching the site of the disaster in Dazhai Village, Guanling county, Guizhou earlier this week.

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Torrential rain has battered Guizhou and other southern provinces over the past two months, causing widespread flooding and putting dykes and levees along swollen rivers at risk. Guangxi was hit earlier this week with what Xinhua described as a ‘once-in-three-centuries’ rainstorm. In Jiangxi to the east water levels in Poyang Lake, the country’s largest freshwater lake, are so high they are starting to force leaks through the lake’s embankments, putting some 10.000  people at risk should they fail.

All this is prompting fears of a repeat of 1998’s floods that left nearly 4,000 dead. As concerning heavy rains are now falling in Qinghai on the Tibetan Plateau where both the Yellow and the Yangtze Rivers have their headwaters.

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